Alaska villages 'scrambling' after losing essential air service

Joaqlin Estus

Many patients travel to hospitals via private air carriers

For hundreds of small towns and villages in rural Alaska the only way in and out is by plane this time of year, and by boat in the summer. They’re not linked by road to any other community.

An airline that carried passengers, food, freight and mail to more than 120 of those isolated communities announced Thursday morning it’s ending service to all but 11 villages. Ravn Air sent the message at 6 a.m. telling employees to stop operations that day. The Anchorage Daily News reports a company spokesperson said it was making the change after seeing a 90 percent drop in business.

Ravn Air’s announcement came five days after Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a mandate prohibiting travel between Alaska communities except to support critical infrastructure or for critical personal needs.

Many of the communities affected by Ravn’s decision have more than one airline carrier so they have options. But some of the other airlines only provide freight service.

The U.S. Postal Service got word Thursday morning of Ravn Air’s decision. By that afternoon, the postal service had lined up other airlines to carry the mail to all but six of the communities. That’s according to David Rupert, U.S. Postal Service communications manager for the western United States.

“Well, you know, we've been delivering mail for a long time up there. So, we've had changes in operators from time to time and we have a whole transportation department that are experts in moving mail across Alaska,” Rupert said. “I'm not certain about the magnitude of this, but we have had to change providers [before] and we're fairly nimble at that. We have a network and we keep that network moving because the mail keeps on coming. So that means the mail has to keep moving, and we do this for a living.”

He said the short notice was challenging. “We’ve been really scrambling today ... We found a number of other temporary providers … so I think it's just going to be a very minimal interruption.” He said the stoppage affected mostly the Northern part of the state and some other scattered communities. He also said mail service to some communities may be reduced to three times a week.

The Alaska tribal health system has clinics, health centers, and hospitals in every part of the state. Community health aides in clinics provide emergency and primary care under a doctor’s supervision. In life-threatening emergencies, a person can be air lifted to a regional hospital or to Anchorage for specialty care. Short of that, though, they travel to a regional hospital by private airlines like Ravn.

In Southwest Alaska, more than three dozen villages send patients to the Native-run Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation hospital in Bethel. Mitchell Forbes, interim public relations director, said the corporation “has reached out to the governor’s office for more information on Gov. Dunleavy’s plan regarding Ravn.”

At a press conference Thursday evening, the governor said Ravn Air, “a great Alaska company,” had reduced services. “We just want Alaskans to know that we're going to do everything we can to try and keep life as normal as possible and deal with this unfortunate fallout, the economic fallout from what's happening here with the pandemic.”

He said the economic aspect of the pandemic is “really hurting airlines across the world, across this country and here in Alaska. And so you're going to hear more about Ravn Air reducing its services throughout Western and Northern Alaska.” Earlier in the day in a prepared statement, the governor stated, “The importance of the supply chain to rural Alaska communities is a priority for my administration.”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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