My Turn: Travelers are the losers in Fairweather dispute

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

It appears that the Murkowski administration and the marine employee unions are at loggerheads with regard to a contract to operate the new ferry Fairweather. If the issues in dispute can not be resolved the greatest losers will be travelers to and from Juneau and the other cities served. And their interests do not seem to be a concern for either side. In all of the recent public statements made on this subject, the idea of placing service to travelers as a major goal has not been prominent.

The marine employees will still have jobs in other ships and the state's negotiators will similarly be employed - only travelers will lose, in the short and in the long run.

What passengers in any mode of travel want most (after safety) is dependability. They want to be able to set aside time with their accountant, attorney, legislator or doctor, and keep that appointment. Needless to say, professional service providers have a strong interest in being able to meet with their clients. Retailers, sports teams, and families have similar concerns for reliable transportation in Southeast. And it is those travelers who will bear the brunt of the loss of the Fairweather.

It is doubly ironic that the Fairweather, perhaps the most enthusiastically received addition to the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet in decades, should be the focus of this dispute. Whatever growing pains the Department of Transportation may have in learning how to operate her, there is no question of the ferry's enthusiastic reception by the traveling public. Ridership last summer produced a revenue surplus for the Fairweather of somewhere around $250,000. And the schedule flexibility inherent in a shuttle means that her engines would be operating only about 20 hours per week on a four day per week schedule. By contrast, mainliner engines are burning fuel for about 150 hours per week on their 7/24 pattern.

The cities of Juneau, Sitka, Haines and Skagway have the most to lose by the withdrawal of the Fairweather from service. But in a larger sense, the entire Alaska Marine Highway System and all the cities it serves will suffer from the loss of a real technological improvement in how the system operates. This is an occasion when all of us who have economic, social, and development concerns for the Alaska Marine Highway System should encourage both sides to place the public interest ahead of their own and make the concessions necessary to keep the Fairweather sailing.

This seems to be one of those times when the seagoing unions and the departments of Transportation and Administration need to hear from the public about the need to resolve the labor dispute and give priority to the interests of the traveling public. That, in the last analysis, is what they are hired to do.

• Bob Doll is executive director Better Ferries for Alaska. He lives in Juneau.

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