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FAIRBANKS - The federal law on air mail and passenger services to Alaska villages has been rewritten again, this time with congressional passage of a postal reform bill.
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The revision will relieve air carriers that fly smaller planes of a looming deadline to buy mid-size aircraft and to submit to greater federal inspection if they want to carry bypass mail.
Bypass mail is an Alaska-only program that allows individuals and companies to send prepackaged, bulk material from Anchorage or Fairbanks to northern Alaska Bush communities at parcel post rates, which are much lower than the rates charged for private cargo.
Not all rural air carriers that fly small planes support the legislation because it also makes it easier for air carriers with mid-size planes to get into routes. Art Warbelow, president of Warbelow's Air Ventures, called the bill an "affront" to companies such as his that fly smaller planes.
"We had no input on this," he said Wednesday, of the rewrite authored by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and approved by Congress on Saturday.
Bob Hajdukovich, operations director of Frontier Flying Service, said the legislation is necessary to deliver the improved safety and lower costs provided by the mid-size aircraft his company flies. Otherwise, the economics don't work, he said.
"It's been a real struggle for every carrier," he said.
The U.S. Postal Service dispatches the bypass mail evenly among qualified air carriers on a route. Carriers are paid according to rates based on industry average costs and aircraft size. The money draws regular mail flights into villages, and those flights provide regular passenger service as well.
"The bypass mail system is essential for people living in our state's most remote communities," Stevens said in a statement issued this week. "This bill ensures the critical partnership between Alaska air carriers and the U.S. Postal Service continues and does so in the most cost-effective manner for all entities involved."
The Postal Service's inspector general in June identified the bypass mail program as one of five major cost burdens on the mail system nationally.
In 2002, Stevens wrote a law that said air carriers had to carry at least 20 percent of the passengers on the bush mail routes if they wanted to get a substantial share of the bypass mail on those same routes from the Postal Service. The law eliminated a number of small air carriers that made virtually all their money from mail.
The latest rule change approved Saturday would partially reverse course and eliminate the 20 percent passenger standard - but only for companies that operate mid-size aircraft. A deadline for smaller planes to upgrade if they want to keep bypass mail goes away.