April 8 Coronavirus Update: Lee Ryan On An Airline Industry Changed Forever

A fleet of Cessna 207 airplanes owned by Ravn Air Group sits grounded on the tarmac after the airline announced that they were cutting 90 percent of their service on April 2, 2020. They later filed for bankruptcy.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

COVID-19 has disrupted air travel in Alaska, and one of the largest airlines serving the bush has abruptly grounded all of its planes. A state task force was called together to look at what to do after Ravn Air Group declared bankruptcy and stopped flying.

Smaller companies, including Ryan Air, have stepped up to deliver mail and freight, along with the few passengers that still need to fly. Lee Ryan’s family has been running its airline since the 1950s. He says that Alaska’s rural air service has been fundamentally changed by the pandemic and may never be the same again.

“As we move out of the COVID crisis, what does aviation look like? Because it’s going to be changed forever,” said Ryan. “It’s going to be our biggest impact in years.”

Ryan, who chairs Gov. Dunleavy’s Aviation Advisory Board, said that the group is already looking toward the future. He expects that Ravn will probably be back, but he also said that the aviation environment will not be the same. Ravn left when rural Alaska badly needed its supply lines, and the smaller companies that Ravn dominated stayed and provided services.

“Right now, all the cargo and mail is going to move just fine, but as passengers start moving, that capacity is going to change. And how are we going to ensure our next steps are solidified? So we’re providing our opinion and advice to the governor on that, and they’ll go where he wants with it. And the advisory board’s open, and we’ve already had healthy discussions of next steps.”

Ravn Air Group’s bankruptcy and closure may have been triggered by the loss of passenger travel during the pandemic, but the airline and its many subsidiaries have also had a long and troubled history of plane crashes. Ryan indicated to KYUK that this is a concern that the advisory group shares.

“And we don’t want to go back 20 or 30 years in aviation safety in what the Rural Service Improvement Act and bypass mail has allowed rural Alaska to be.

Whatever happens, the airline business in Alaska is highly competitive and fluid. The air carriers are talking to one another, but nobody’s saying that the competition is going away. Ryan says that he expects RavnAir to emerge from bankruptcy at some point in the future.