Advocates of rural community defend 'airport to nowhere'

Construction on $76 million project in Akutan expected to begin this year

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2010

Alaska's small communities cannot escape the "nowhere" moniker.

Construction is expected to begin this year on a $76 million airport and hovercraft for Akutan, a roadless Aleut island village of about 100 permanent residents and sometimes 900 seasonal workers served by a single nine-passenger seaplane flying a federally subsidized route twice a day. With federal money covering more than three-quarters of the airport's price tag, the parallels with another infamous Alaska project are unavoidable.

"Some people are probably positing, 'Oh, it's another Bridge to Nowhere, except it's an airport to nowhere,"' said Larry Cotter, the chief executive of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association. "Anybody who says that is really ignorant."

Local advocates such as Cotter say the airport is crucial for emergencies and hardens a link between the seasonal labor force and North America's largest seafood production facility on the island.

About 5,500 passengers annually fly the 35 miles between Akutan and the hub town Unalaska aboard PenAir's hardy and historic 1942 Grumman Goose seaplane, airline President Danny Seybert said. Akutan Mayor Joe Bereskin said it's a 20-minute flight or four to six hours by boat.

The commuter airline has known for years that the Goose's retirement - and the Unalaska-Akutan route with it - is imminent and inevitable.

"The problem with that airplane, we can't get parts for it, it's very expensive to maintain. At some point, we're going to run out of parts," Seybert said.

Small float planes ubiquitous in Alaska aren't safe to land in windy Akutan Bay. Seybert said half of the Goose's flights are canceled because of bad weather and the limitations of the plane and location.

The 4,500-foot runway and ground support for modern aviation instruments planned on nearby Akun Island will improve reliability and open access to land-based planes, which are cheaper to operate and maintain. Seybert hasn't done the math, but said PenAir might be able to economically maintain service to Akutan without its federal subsidy after the airport opens, expected in 2012.

Like 44 other scheduled commercial air routes in Alaska, the Unalaska-Akutan route is subsidized by the federal government's Essential Air Service program, which was created after Congress's landmark deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. As of January, the program subsidizes 151 routes to small and rural communities around the country to ensure at least a safety net-level of air service.

PenAir gets a $655,000 subsidy for its Akutan route, or about 5 percent of the $12.6 million annually to Alaska carriers. Nationally, the program costs $158 million.

Seybert thinks the Goose has about three years left, but even if it could be kept going indefinitely, Cotter said it isn't good enough.

"The status quo is not realistic either out there. We rely on - a - plane," Cotter said.

Bottlenecks at Unalaska Airport certain times of year keep people from leaving the region without months of lead time, Bereskin said.

The 174-passenger state ferry Tustumena also stops in Akutan about twice a month during the summer as it travels between the mainland and Unalaska.

The city itself has committed a huge chunk of its meager income to the airport project. It relies on a tax on raw fish that yields $800,000 to $900,000 a year, Bereskin said, and has spent about $2 million prepping and acquiring property for the airport. It's committed another $500,000 toward a hovercraft and associated facilities linking the airport to Akutan.

State Transportation Commissioner Leo von Scheben said in November that the price tag sounds high, but is reasonable for building a new airport in rural Alaska. For example, last June, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a grant covering 95 percent of a $21 million airport rebuild for the interior Alaska community Takotna, population 46. It's one of 256 airports the state manages; virtually all Alaska villages have one, a state transportation spokesman said.

"It's much cheaper to maintain a (runway) during the Alaska winter than a 50-mile-long road," spokesman Roger Wetherell said in an e-mail.

Akutan's airport is expected to cost the state $500,000 a year to operate. The local borough government is covering the hovercraft operation.

Seattle-based processor Trident Seafoods has also kicked in $1 million for the hovercraft. It operates the island's seafood processing facility, which can employ up to 825 people and crank out 3 million pounds of processed seafood a day. Trident representatives could not be reached for comment, but Cotter, of the community development nonprofit, estimates the plant may produce a billion dollars of seafood a year.

State Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a fisherman and Democrat from Bethel, represents the Aleutian chain and has said the airport is long overdue.

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