Ravn Air Group’s March bankruptcy filing during the coronavirus pandemic left many Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages without mail or passenger service, but three airlines stepped in to make sure that residents got their mail and access to medical care. Still, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation claims that there are still villages without regular air service.
Crooked Creek is one of the villages that Ravn abandoned when Ravn Air Group declared bankruptcy and abruptly ceased service back in March. Regional airline Ryan Air took over Ravn’s mail and passenger route in the middle Kuskokwim River area roughly the same day Ravn ceased flying, so things are relatively back to normal.
"Mail and stuff is still coming in, and we’ve always mainly traveled to Anchorage with Sound [Aviation] and Lake and Pen[insula Airlines]," said Tim Zaukar, who manages the transportation department for the Crooked Creek Traditional Native Council. Like most villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta during the pandemic, Crooked Creek has restricted travel in and out of the community. Zaukar said that residents have always had to turn to charter carriers out of Anchorage.
Roughly 1,500 people live in the 10 tiny communities along the upper part of the Kuskokwim River, including Crooked Creek. Aniak, a community of 500, is the main hub. Ryan Air CEO Lee Ryan explained that the population numbers make it a tough airline market.
"You have bigger towns like Kalskag, and then you have a lot smaller towns like Stony River. And so as an airline, that particular market is challenging because of the population size in different communities," Ryan said.
Before the pandemic hit, Ravn would frequently cancel flights in the area if there weren’t enough passengers or mail to justify the flight. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, people stopped traveling. Villages, haunted by traumatic memories of past pandemics, closed their doors to outsiders and restricted travel for residents. Ryan said that struck hard at the airlines’ bottom line.
"During this COVID-19 crisis, the passenger movement is just not there. Passenger revenue is down, the passenger inter-village travel is down significantly," Ryan said.
Ravn Air Group declared bankruptcy, leaving multiple villages without mail service and some without passenger service. The remaining regional airlines in the Y-K Delta got together to figure out what to do next. Dan Knesek is the vice president of operations with Grant Aviation.
"The day that that happened, competition was thrown out the window and the air carriers worked with, like, the U.S. Postal Service and each other to make sure that every village that lost all of their air service with the Ravn bankruptcy had some type of service to give them their mail, but also allowed them travel to, say, the hospital and whatnot," Knesek said.
KYUK obtained fight schedules and checked company websites that indicate that Yute Commuter Service, Ryan Air, and Grant Aviation all have scheduled flights to every village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
"Does every community have regular scheduled service? I am very confident and say that yes, every community has regular scheduled service. Is it the same service that they had pre-pandemic and pre-Ravn bankruptcy? No," Knesek said.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, the main rural healthcare provider in the region, said that 14 villages still have no regular air service, but when asked to define the term “regular air service,” the spokesperson declined. The airlines don’t have daily flights to every village, but there is an airline bringing mail and offering passenger service to each village several times a week.
On the days without a daily scheduled flight to a specific community, YKHC must charter a $1,000 flight to bring patients to Bethel or Anchorage for care. That’s expensive, especially as the health corporation is losing money because of fewer patient visits overall.
A month ago, YKHC announced that they were laying off or furloughing 300 employees after revenue declined following Gov. Dunleavy's restrictions on non-essential travel and elective medical procedures. Patient visits to the Bethel hospital had fallen 50 percent, and some health clinics saw visits drop 20 percent. YKHC started losing $5 to $8 million monthly. Airlines said they are working with YKHC to reduce the cost of charter flights.
"We even tried to work with YKHC to combine multiple destinations needed into one flight to reduce that cost," Knesek said.
Right now, Ravn Air Group is in the middle of a bankruptcy proceeding, and just filed a plan to sell its assets. While regional airlines have figured out service in the region during the pandemic, they say that they will evaluate the airline market once the pandemic ends.
The article has been corrected to reflect Dan Knesek's proper title.