Taquan Air has lightened its load in an effort to stay in the air, dropping flights to more than 20 isolated communities in Southeast Alaska.
The Ketchikan-based airline laid off about 80 employees and cut back flights to a minimum in order to find a buyer, said Taquan Operations Manager Brien Salazar.
All but three of Taquan's 19 planes are grounded. Those three planes are flying only to maintain government contracts and essential air service routes, Salazar said. The airline is owned by Kootznoowoo, the Native village corporation for Angoon.
The loss of Taquan flights comes at a bad time for Prince of Wales Island, said Tom Briggs, city administrator for Craig. State ferry service for the island was recently reduced to one day a week to save money.
``Without a reasonable transportation base, the island's going to be damaged, the economy's going to be damaged and lifestyle's going to be damaged,'' Briggs said. ``You've got an island community of over 6,000 people. There's a lot of need to go back and forth.''
Taquan Air used to fly to Prince of Wales three or four times a day in the winter, and up to six times a day in the summer, Briggs said. A smaller Ketchikan-based air service, Promech Air, has been trying to fill in the gap in service, but is so overcrowded by the demand that reservations must be made two weeks in advance, Briggs said.
Now going to Ketchikan for a single meeting can require staying a week, Briggs said. Blood samples taken at the clinic must be thrown out if they can't get to the lab in Ketchikan on time. Briggs expects an increase in the island's already high rate of Coast Guard medevacs, now that patients can't go on regularly scheduled flights.
The fishing and hunting lodges on Prince of Wales also depend on reliable air service to bring them clients from April to October.
The Craig City Council is asking the governor for assistance in the form of increased ferry service until an inter-island ferry system formed by the communities starts up in spring 2001, Briggs said.
Kootznoowoo bought the controlling interest of Taquan Air in October from the airline's founder, Jerry Scudero, and his wife, Candi. After the initial $3 million investment, the board assessed the company and determined it would take lots more money to keep Taquan flying all winter - money the board plans to invest in real estate and stocks.
``We're very sensitive to the fact that our board has put together a strategic plan that requires us to provide dividends for all our shareholders and to stabilize after the harvest of our timber,'' said Carlton Smith, CEO for Kootznoowoo.
Taquan brought in about $7 million in revenue last year. It lost money in 1998, and expected increases in riders this fall never came, Smith said. An attempt to expand into commuter air service failed with the closure of its regional AirOne service last March.
Winter is usually a hard time for regional airlines anyway, with fewer flight hours because of limited daylight and bad weather. Slowdowns in the timber industry exacerbated the problem, Smith said. With the Ketchikan economy declining at a rate of 3 to 4 percent a year, Smith said there was no improvement in sight.
But Briggs of Craig believes Kootznoowoo is using the timber industry as a scapegoat. He said there are still plenty of passengers on the island.
``When you have the largest island in Southeast that has over 1,000 miles of road connecting probably 10 communities, to say there's not a reason to keep flying because of timber is not the whole story,'' Briggs said. ``Otherwise, how is Promech able to keep flying, and they're swamped.''
If Taquan is going to fly to Prince of Wales, Metlakatla or other communities again, it will be under a new owner, Salazar said.
There haven't been any formal offers yet, but Kootznoowoo has had ``substantial interest expressed'' by five prospective buyers, Smith said. Within the next 30 days he expects there to be enough offers for Kootznoowoo to choose a buyer.
Smith said the employees had been briefed about the company's situation in the last few months, but were not told of the layoff until it was announced Dec. 31. Taquan will be working with state agencies to help the ex-employees find new jobs.
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