Assembly backs Juneau-Whitehorse direct flights

City commits up to $26,400 for winter trial of 3 round-trip flights

Posted: Friday, October 16, 2009

After a gap of seven years, it looks likely Air North will re-establish direct flights connecting Juneau and Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory on a trial basis this winter.

The Juneau Assembly voted 6-3 on Monday to guarantee the seats on three proposed round-trip flights between the two communities to the tune of $8,800 per flight. The Whitehorse City Council is set to consider a parallel proposal.

The arrangement puts the business risk entirely on the city. If no tickets for a 40-person flight sell, the city pays $8,800. If one ticket went unsold, the city would only pay the price of that one ticket. If the flights sell out, the city would owe nothing.

Mayor Bruce Botelho, community members, Whitehorse Mayor Bev Buckway, Whitehorse community members and Air North representatives have been in talks about re-establishing the connection for several months. Services were discontinued due to lack of traffic around 2002.

Each proposed flight departs Juneau on a Friday and returns on Sunday. One is Dec. 4 to Dec. 6, during Juneau's annual Gallery Walk, the next Feb. 19 to Feb. 21, built around the Yukon Quest sled dog race, and the third is April 9 to April 11, during Alaska Folk Festival.

The proposal before Whitehorse officials piggybacks on that schedule for three round-trip flights out of Whitehorse.

Botelho said Whitehorse and Juneau, sister cities, have long been connected by sports, arts, commerce and as "weekend escapes," and he's been interested in re-establishing a regular air connection for a long time.

Botelho said local hoteliers reported "dismal" occupancy rates during the summer, which added to his desire to reestablish a connection.

Steve Hamilton, general manager of the Baranof Hotel and member of the Juneau Convention and Visitor's Bureau, has been involved in the discussions.

"In this economic climate, we can't bring business from the Lower 48, but we can from surrounding communities," he said. "We feel really confident that we can fill those 40 seats going each way."

Many sports leagues have expressed interest, too, Hamilton said.

At the Assembly's Monday meeting, Assembly member Merrill Sanford said if the flights were sure to be successful, they should be backed by the Chamber of Commerce or instituted by the airline itself.

"This is a private enterprise," he said. "A business model will show whether it can be successful or not."

Assembly member Jonathan Anderson echoed this view, later saying he would "love" Air North to open the route, but the Assembly should be cautious about taking such a step while heading into a deficit year.

The city's projected deficit in two years is $8.8 million.

Assembly member Bob Doll pointed out that there are "very few" opportunities for the Assembly to so directly stimulate business in Juneau.

Assembly members Sanford, Anderson and Randy Wanamaker voted against the guarantee. Mayor Bruce Botelho and Assembly members Bob Doll, Johan Dybdahl, David Stone, Jeff Bush and Sara Chambers voted for it.

Eventually, Botelho said, he expects there will be regular year-round service that will facilitate connections between the two cities, promote connections between Alaska and the Yukon with Juneau International Airport as a transit site, and capture a portion of the international tourism market that flies into Whitehorse and usually travels on to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Air North President Joe Sparling was more cautious in his assessment of the likelihood of regular flights.

"I think it's hard to say," he said. "Certainly the level of interest on the selected weekends might have an impact on that."

He also said the tax structure discourages short distance flights.

"The tax structure is designed in my mind to capture those who are on a long trip," he said. "Because it's applied as a flat rate, on a short trip like between Whitehorse and Juneau it adds a huge portion to the cost of travel."

Before services were discontinued, taxes ended up adding two-thirds to the price of the ticket, Sparling said, so a $150 ticket would end up costing $250.

Without a direct flight, however, ticket prices are around $1,200 with connections in Seattle and Vancouver and take about 12 hours, including layovers. Many people take the ferry to Skagway and travel to Whitehorse by car. A round-trip ferry ticket from Juneau to Skagway, with a car, costs around $300.

Botelho said the three proposed flights would each carry 40 passengers, cost $240 per round-trip ticket and take about one hour.

He said he hopes regular, weekly air service will be re-instituted by summer 2010.

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.



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