Mail changes lead to grumbles in North Slope

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2006

BARROW - Mike Shults pushed an empty grocery cart down a chilly aisle at the largest grocery store in town.

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"Empty shelves," he said, gesturing to the ice cream section.

"Empty shelves," he said, rolling his eyes at a few bags of frozen vegetables.

He slapped a DiGiorno pizza into the basket for dinner.

"Geesh! It's a joke!"

Life was never easy on the North Slope, where ground fog rolls off the Arctic Ocean and blizzards strike even in summer. But it got harder in June, grumble residents in this Inupiaq town of 4,200.

That's when, to save money, the U.S. Postal Service decided to change how bypass mail gets to Barrow.

Designed to assist residents in Alaska's poor, isolated villages, the program subsidizes bulk-mail delivery. The postal service program loses more than $50 million a year to run it, an official said.

Under the program, goods essentially travel first-class at parcel-post rates - quickly and cheaply. Rural Alaskans have taken advantage of bypass mail to lower costs for everything from soda pop to auto parts to dog food.

Bypass is usually a pallet of groceries - weighing 1,000 pounds or more - sent directly from a store or other businesses to a private transporter for delivery, such as Alaska Airlines. The bulk shipment bypasses the post office.

Bypass mail is widely popular in the Bush. The reform adopted in June affects just the North Slope. That's because unlike most of the rest of rural Alaska, there's a road from the state's cities to the Slope. Although the road goes only to the oil fields, not to villages, the mail can get part way to Barrow via truck.

Before the change last summer, airlines flew bypass mail from Fairbanks to Barrow, a 500-mile trip.

Now, a trucking company drives the mail from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, an industrial town next to the huge Prudhoe Bay oil field. From there, airlines fly the mailed goods to Barrow, a 200-mile trip.

The new system has created a cascade of changes. Officials with airlines, the main grocery store and the borough government say they're struggling to adjust.

Residents also complain that it's much harder to book seats. That's because Deadhorse became a stop on Alaska Airlines' flights to and from Barrow. That has increased competition for tickets, residents say.

An Alaska Airlines official said the company is working with the community to address that issue, including recent steps to improve passenger service.

Steve Deaton, the postal service's coordinator for the bypass-mail change, said some bypass mail has taken a day longer to arrive than it used to. But the program works, he said. Customers pay for mail that arrives in seven to 10 days, and that's the latest it arrives, he said.

He's heard from residents in the region that perishables are reaching Barrow in better shape than they used to. They're trucked to Deadhorse in a temperature-controlled van, giving them some protection they didn't have before, he said.

Blizzards, fog or low clouds often shroud North Slope airports, reducing visibility and preventing planes from retrieving mail in Deadhorse or dropping it off in Barrow, said Robert Ragar of Everts.

"It happens several times a week easy," Ragar said.

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