The largest rural air carrier in Alaska plans to stop flying to two of its 11 destinations later this month, citing a nationwide pilot shortage that has left a hole in its ranks.
Ravn Alaska will cancel its current service to Kenai and to Aniak in Southwest Alaska starting Oct. 21, said Tina Hanley, chief commercial officer with Ravn Alaska, in an interview Friday.
The airline currently provides several passenger flights daily to Kenai, population 7,500. It flies six days each week to Aniak, a Southwest Alaska town of 500 that’s a jumping-off point for several smaller villages.
“I regret any negative impact this has had on the communities,” Hanley said. “On behalf of our company we always try to provide consistent service. But the pilot shortage has certainly impacted our ability to do that.”
The airline operates nine de Havilland Dash 8s that seat 37 people, Hanley said.
The pilot shortage is one piece of a sprawling labor pinch that has impacted industries across the U.S.
Alaska in particular has struggled to attract workers partly because wages have shrunk compared to other states.
Airlines have hiked pay to help meet the national demand caused in part by a graying workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be about 17,000 openings for commercial and airline pilots annually over the next several years.
Ravn has also offered new incentives in a nationwide search to attract pilots, Hanley said. But the airline still can’t fill its open pilot posts.
“Our HR department has worked diligently and we have significant bonuses and programs in place to try to recruit and retain, and it’s just difficult,” she said.
“There’s a large number of vacancies,” she said.
An upstart company affiliated with Ravn Alaska — New Pacific Airlines, formerly called Northern Pacific Airways — has plans to provide passenger flights to Asia and the Lower 48 with Anchorage stops, using Boeing 757 jets.
Those plans do not affect Ravn’s shortage of pilots, Hanley said.
“The needs are exclusive to each airline, because the (pilot) qualifications are different,” she said.
The cancellation will be hard on Aniak, said Bill Wilson, the town’s former mayor and a pilot for Ryan Air.
“We didn’t know this was coming,” he said.
Wilson said residents in 15 surrounding villages rely on Ravn’s service to Anchorage six days a week.
Ryan Air flies passengers between the smaller communities and Aniak, he said.
Ryan Air also currently flies twice a week to Anchorage using a nine-seat Pilatus PC-12, holding a fraction of the passengers in Ravn’s Dash 8s.
“It will make it hard for anyone wanting to travel back and forth (to Anchorage),” he said. “I expect Ryan will add more days to Anchorage, and do everything they can to bridge the gap.”
Mary Bondurant, interim airport manager for Kenai Municipal Airport, said Ravn Alaska chief executive Rob McKinney called her Friday morning to announce the cancellation.
“The only comment was this was strictly an economic decision primarily driven by the nationwide pilot shortage,” she said.
Bondurant said the airline has two other carriers providing daily service out of the city, Grant Aviation and Kenai Aviation.
“We didn’t have the airline commonly known as Ravn for a year,” so this isn’t new territory, she said.
Still, it’s nice for a community to have all the options it can, Bondurant said.
Source : ADN