AK Airlines cuts fish runs

Airline company can't keep up with Southeast's bumper harvest

Posted: Tuesday, June 14, 2005

People aren't the only Alaskans having trouble at the airport recently.

Fish are too.

In Southeast Alaska, seafood processors and Alaska Airlines are struggling to get a bumper crop of fresh fish to Lower 48 markets this year.

"Just at the time that there is interest in wild fish, we can't get it on the airline," said Tim Ryan, Sitka Sound Seafoods plant manager.

Unfortunately, the heavy demand for wild Alaska salmon down south this year coincided with a reduction in Alaska Airlines freight capacity that is expected to continue until early 2006.

"It's just sort of a disaster," said Patrick Wilson, manager of Icicle Seafood's Petersburg Fisheries plant.

Shipping fresh fish has always been a conundrum for remote Alaska, and especially for Southeast Alaska, where there are significantly fewer flights per day than in Anchorage.

It got a little tougher this year.

As part of a much broader restructuring of the company, Alaska Airlines is phasing out its old fleet of nine 737-200 freight planes, and recently replaced two such planes that ran multiple-stop "milk runs" up and down the coast with passenger planes that are more reliable but have less cargo space.

In May, the airline laid off about 470 baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and replaced them with contracted workers. The change resulted in frequent delays for passengers.

The company has ordered one new freight plane, with 33 percent more cargo space than the 200 series planes, but it won't arrive until February.

Also, the company is retrofitting four additional planes to a passenger-cargo "combi" configuration. The entire project costs $15 million and will be finished in early 2007.

That's little comfort to seafood producers who are trying to strike while Alaska salmon is hot.

"We've been less than reliable in providing freight capacity this year," said Matt Yerbic, managing director of cargo for Alaska Airlines. "Everyone is out pushing as hard as they can. The demand has gone up dramatically."

The airline has even recruited a postal mail plane to help transport fish to Seattle this year.

"We're trying to enhance the supply chain. We know its important to the state of Alaska," Yerbic said.

Many Southeast Alaska communities are actually shipping 10 to 15 percent more fish than usual by airplane this year. Juneau is shipping about 30 percent more fish than in previous years, at about 20,000 to 30,000 pounds per day, he said.

"Frankly, we can't put enough capacity on some days to satisfy the demand," Yerbic said.

In Juneau, which has more flights than other towns in the region, seafood plants are having less trouble getting their fish to market.

"We haven't had some of the problems that other communities have had. I've been able to move our product. Not to say that you don't go home sweating a little bit," said Mike Erickson, owner of Alaska Glacier Seafoods in Auke Bay.

"You have to be on your toes," Erickson said. "You have to stay in constant communication (with the airline)."

"It's a thrill a minute," said Eric Norman, manager at Taku Fisheries. "We just watch it very close. They are maxing out their planes, it's safe to say."

In Sitka and Petersburg, seafood plant operators are unhappy with the reduction in freight capacity, which is causing them to sell more fish frozen for a lower price.

"We've developed a strong fresh (fish) program," said Sitka Sound Seafood's Ryan. "But it's just falling apart."

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