For fishermen traveling to Bristol Bay, Alaska Air confusion complicates early season
Flight cancellations and a lack of communication have left some travelers confused and frustrated as they try to balance local quarantine requirements with the time-sensitive fishing season.
When Ravn PenAir filed for bankruptcy in early April, rural communities across Alaska were left with cuts in service. Bristol Bay was left with no commercial service at all.
Alaska Air normally starts flying to the region June 1, but this spring it began on May 18th. It’s aiming for year-round service to the region. But the airline has struggled to regulate its schedule.
I experienced this myself when I was making plans to come to Dillingham. I booked a flight from Portland to Anchorage, and then on to Dillingham on June 2. But about a week before my trip, I got an email saying that my flight was now headed from Portland to Seattle, Seattle to Anchorage -- with no flight to Dillingham.
When I called Alaska Airlines about my missing flight to Dillingham, the customer service representative told me that it looked like even-day flights to Dillingham had been cancelled for a couple of weeks.
I wasn’t alone. Around when my flights were changed, fishermen and locals started posting about cancelled and re-routed flights on social media.
Gregg Marxmiller, a Dillingham fisherman, said flights he had purchased for his crew-members were pushed back twice. He wasn’t notified either time.
“I just heard rumors and then I went to check my accounts and they had been changed,” he said.
In a normal year, delayed and cancelled flights are frustrating. But during a pandemic, when the state and communities are requiring travel permits or two-week quarantines, the last-minute changes mean tighter schedules for pre-season fishing preparation.
“The idea would be that they’d be finished with quarantine by now and that we could be doing work, you know, going and getting things, and that’s just not going to happen,” Marxmiller said.
The delays changed Marxmiller's preseason. Things are OK, he said, but not ideal, and they’re needing help from friends to get everything together on time.
Jamie O’Connor is Dillingham’s public information officer, and also setnets in Ekuk. This spring she had multiple flights bumped. Alaska Air representatives told her that there hadn’t been any schedule changes, adding to the confusion. O’Connor ended up traveling to the bay almost a week later than she had planned.
Alaska Air spokesperson Tim Thompson said the airline is still trying to find the best schedule to meet demand.
“We’re still working through that," he said. "We loaded a schedule based on historically what we’ve traditionally flown. With the loss of another air carrier in there, we actually enhanced the schedule and brought in more capacity to meet the anticipated demand. That demand did not show. So in order to right-size the amount of aircraft that we’re flying in, we had to make some adjustments to the schedule.”
Thompson apologized for the disrupted travel plans, saying that Alaska Air’s goal is to provide year-round service to the bay, and that they’re still working out what that schedule will look like.
“Right now the fall and winter schedule are just very fluid,” he said.
According to Alaska Air’s online scheduler, both the Anchorage to Dillingham and Anchorage to King Salmon routes have run at least once a day since June 10th.
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