ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Aleutian Island village of Akutan has a new $75.5 million airport -- on an island six miles across the water. Passengers will take a $100 hovercraft ride over the Bering Sea to catch their planes.
But the new airport has no planes, or at least no scheduled air service. And Akutan finds itself without regular mail.
Akutan, 766 miles southwest of Anchorage, has a year-round population of 75. But more than 1,000 seasonal employees work at the Trident Seafood fish-processing plant, described as the largest such facility in North America.
For years, air service was provided by PenAir. The small Alaska airline used a World War II-era Grumman Goose, an amphibious aircraft, to land in the harbor and taxi up a ramp on the shore of the town. The age and operational costs of that airplane led officials to start planning a new land airport in 1999.
The steep terrain on volcanic Akutan presented obstacles. So authorities looked to uninhabited Akun Island, six miles away.
"The Akun alternative was less costly" and considered safer, said Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Fellers.
The Akun airport opened Sept. 1. It features a 4,500-feet-long paved runway, an apron, taxiway, equipment storage building and an airport access road.
The Suna X, an 89-foot-long hovercraft owned by the Aleutians East Borough, connects the town and its airport. The borough acquired the vessel for service between King Cove and Cold Bay in 2007, but it proved trouble-prone. A 2008 press release from the borough said, "Mechanical problems, delays in getting replacement parts from the United Kingdom and poor weather have combined to keep the hovercraft out of service much more than previously anticipated."
Then-borough administrator Bob Jeuttner was quoted as saying, "We can't afford the hovercraft."
The King Cove-Cold Bay run ended in 2010. The Suna X was refurbished and sent to Akutan where, according to current borough administrator Rick Gifford, it has experienced few problems since going into service two months ago.
It's also had few passengers. The federal Department of Transportation is in the process of approving an air carrier but is unlikely to make a decision until early November at the earliest, said Bill Mosely, a DOT spokesman in Washington, D.C.
PenAir's Goose is no longer able to take passengers or mail. The ramp formerly used by the plane was reconstructed for the hovercraft, said PenAir President Danny Seybert. The new design doesn't accommodate the long struts of the plane's landing gear, creating safety concerns, he said.
"I can't operate out there any more," Seybert said last week. "They took my runway away. Sunday was our last flight."
For the 1,000 Trident workers getting ready to wrap up the season and go home, that means either arranging a charter flight from Akun or catching a ride on a boat 35 miles to Dutch Harbor.
no mail, no medicine
"With the new airport, there are no regular flights," said Oliver Drebdor, environmental supervisor at the Trident plant. "But the mail is a big problem right now."
Not just a problem for the fish plant. "I'm seeing a lot of people who are wondering how they'll get their medications," said Anthony Brown, a traveling health aid in the village.
Matthew Felling, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said she had heard from constituents in Akutan who were worried about receiving their medicine.
"We're particularly concerned for some people who are taking Coumadin," he said. The anti-coagulant prescribed to people at risk of stroke requires constant measuring and constant doses, he said.
Packages and letters bound for Akutan continued to accumulate in Dutch Harbor last week, said Bob Lochmann, Manager of Transportation for the Alaska District of the U.S. Postal Service. Over the past few days, the Postal Service arranged charters to get the mail in and out of town. But delivery remains ad hoc.
Lochmann said he was confident the DOT would complete its "Essential Air Service" (EAS) review and identify a new carrier soon. The selected carrier will bring the mail from Dutch Harbor to Akun, "then make sure that the mail gets to delivered to the post office on Akutan," he said
However, in the only EAS proposal submitted, Grant Aviation said it will not take responsibility for getting the mail beyond the airport.
Anchorage-based Grant has already taken over other Aleutian routes relinquished by PenAir. In an Oct. 10 filing with the DOT, the company proposed 12 flights per week at a cost to the government of between $811,316.73 and $1,123,310.74.
"This proposal makes NO provision for transport of mail and cargo between the runway on Akun and the village of Akutan," reads the filing. The offer is "contingent on the Postal Service agreeing, in writing, that Grant Aviation will not be held responsible for failing to transport beyond Akun."
Grant notes "secure mail storage facilities, labor for handling mail and freight, and ground transportation on Akun are unresolved issues."
The company also has doubts about the Suna X. "According to the hovercraft operator's stated expectations (transportation between Akun and Akutan) is expected to perform with THIRTY percent reliability," the filing reads. "This will present logistical problems."
In an interview with Unalaska public radio station KUCB, Martin Robbins, general manager for HoverLink, a Seattle-based company that operates the vessel, said he expected the reliability on the new run to be 90 percent.
"Time will tell," he said.
The DOT's Mosely could not give a firm date for when Grant's proposal might be accepted or rejected. "We hope to make a decision as soon as we can," he said.
The deadline for public comment is Nov. 8.