Steep declines in air travel are placing regional air carriers in economic jeopardy.
Ravn Air, Alaska’s largest regional carrier, is temporarily cutting 146 out of about 13,000 positions due to a “dramatic reduction in passenger bookings resulting from the recent arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus.” Company spokesperson Debbie Reinwand says that Ravn is hoping to rehire those employees as soon as possible.
Yute Commuter Service has also made extreme cuts. At the beginning of March, the air carrier had 65 employees. Now, about half of those employees have been laid off or placed on leave without pay. "We are trying, like every other airline business, to stay afloat right now,” said Yute General Manager Nathan McCabe.
He began the cutbacks the second week of March, when booking numbers began declining. Since then, multiple days of inclement weather have kept planes grounded. When planes have flown, McCabe says that they've carried only one or two passengers.
Meanwhile, tribes and cities across the region have enacted tight travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to their communities. Many are only allowing in residents. Some are requiring non-residents to receive approval from community leaders to enter. “Villages have been contacting us via email [with the restrictions]," McCabe said. "We read it and respect what they’re asking. You don’t want this virus going out to the villages, because it could decimate them.”
McCabe says that the airline hasn’t had to turn away non-residents; only residents are flying to their home communities. “People are wanting to go home to be safe and be with their families,” he said.
Yute pilots who work in the lower 48 have also chosen to stay home during this time. Yute is not flying passengers who show visible symptoms of COVID-19, like coughing.
So far, Grant Aviation, another regional carrier, has kept all of its approximately 200 employees and is still issuing them paychecks. However, bookings have declined, and Grant has cut about a third of its flights, according to Vice President of Operations Dan Knesek. With recent winter weather grounding planes, he said that he’ll need a stretch of clear skies to calculate how steep the decline has become.
Grant is also abiding by the growing matrix of individual village travel restrictions. “Some villages are asking us to check tribal IDs. Some are asking us to ask if passengers are residents. Some are asking for there to be no travel," Knesek said. "We’ve provided a chart to all our employees with the restrictions.” Pilots keeps the chart in their planes.
To honor these restrictions and limit the spread of the coronavirus, Grant has stopped all travel between villages except to sub-regional medical clinics and to return people to their home communities. Knesek says that daily flights to villages will continue. “We can’t stop operations, because villages survive on the freight, medicines, and mail that we provide," he said.
The mail delivery could prop up Grant’s bottom line through the pandemic. Knesek said that Grant could end up flying its usual number of planes because of a “significant increase in mail orders." Regardless, he says that the lack of passengers will increase Grant’s costs.
Lex Treinen contributed to this report.