Mail is arriving in Yakutat only a few times a week due to increased airline security measures imposed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Delivery could improve as soon as this weekend, but one solution under consideration might cut back daily jet service to the 800-person community 225 miles northwest of Juneau.
The situation involves Federal Aviation Administration anti-terrorism directives and how they're handled by the U.S. Postal Service and Alaska Airlines.
"We in Yakutat are stuck between two giants, both of whom are pledged to serve our households, businesses and institutions," wrote Borough Manager Don Braun in a recent letter describing the situation.
Yakutat usually gets 500 to 1,000 pounds of daily mail on an Alaska Airlines jet, the only major air carrier flying into the coastal community, said Steven Deaton, a postal service network specialist in Anchorage.
That wasn't a problem as long as the airline ran 737-200s into Yakutat. The small jets carry a mix of passengers and cargo, which allowed for all types of mail to be delivered.
But Alaska Airlines recently changed to larger jets that carry more passengers on its two daily flights to Yakutat, said spokesman Jack Evans.
FAA security directives prohibit items weighing more than 16 ounces on flights carrying more than 61 passengers, Evans said.
The 747-200s often carried fewer people, so it wasn't an issue. But with larger planes seating up to 138 people, the airline had to leave the mail behind, Evans said.
To compensate, Alaska Airlines is running cargo-only flights using 737-200s through Yakutat twice a week. But that's not enough for some people in Yakutat.
Mail delays have not caused serious problems for the local government, said Braun. But residents would like a return to daily service.
"Some people just have to have a newspaper in their hand," he said.
Deaton said the postal service is talking to other air carriers and will hire someone else if needed.
"By Saturday there will be transportation to support all classes of mail into and out of Yakutat, even with the strict security directives we have to deal with," he said.
But hiring another company could have other implications. Without the federal subsidy that carrying mail to an isolated community brings, Alaska Airlines might reduce its schedule. No change is planned, Evans said, but loss of what's called "essential air service" payments could cause concern.
"The essential mail service contract is part of the reason we fly to Yakutat," he said.
Evans, however, said he felt the issue can be resolved without reducing flights or long-term mail service. One solution would be for the postal service to presort mail, allowing items under 16 ounces onto daily planes and holding heavier pieces for the twice-weekly cargo-only flights. Now, mail is shipped to Yakutat without being sorted, he said.
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