RavnAir has suspended all flights between villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and to many rural communities across the state.
The state’s largest regional air carrier announced on April 2 that it is reducing operations by 90 percent due to a dramatic decline in passenger bookings. This comes as more people are hunkering down during the coronavirus pandemic, and abiding by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s mandate banning non-essential travel.
The company has slashed its fleet from 30 aircraft to three, parking the smaller planes and only continuing to run their Dash 8 aircraft. These larger planes will continue flying between Anchorage, Bethel, Aniak, and St. Mary’s on a reduced schedule. All other Ravn flights between communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region are currently eliminated.
To maintain its federally required Essential Air Service to communities, Ravn will also continue flying to Kenai, Homer, Valdez, King Salmon, Dillingham, St. Paul, McGrath, and Unalakleet. Before this reduction, RavnAir served 115 communities, most of them rural.
Ravn spokesperson Debra Reinwand said in an email that the changes are an effort to “drastically cut costs” as revenue from passenger bookings has declined by 90 percent.
Ravn’s decision has cut off mail, food, and medical supplies to the Middle Kuskokwim River community of Stony River. Forty-three people live in the village. Mary Willis is the president of the Stony River Traditional Council. Ravn’s announcement shocked her.
“And my first thought was, 'Oh no, what are we going to do to get medicine for our chronically ill patients?'” she said.
The day of Ravn’s announcement, the village was expecting a shipment of medical supplies for their health clinic from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. They were also expecting sanitation supplies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Willis’ grandson is one of the chronically-ill patients she worries about. Thinking of him, she said, “My grandson has a lot of allergies, asthma, and he’s got heart murmur. So if he doesn’t have his allergy medicines and his huffer, you know, they send those, you know?”
The Stony River Traditional Council also operates its own store. Food supplies arrive in the mail every other month. Otherwise, residents would have to order groceries by mail individually or travel an hour away to the community of Sleetmute, where Willis says prices are more expensive. Willis says that the council already got most of the supplies they needed this month before the state started restricting travel because of coronavirus. Only one other airline serves Stony River. Lake and Pen Air brings passengers from Anchorage, but not freight.
On Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, Ravn’s announcement has eliminated the community of Mekoryuk’s only passenger air service. Ryan Air delivers cargo and mail three times per week. But without a way for residents to fly out, Mekoryuk Tribal Judge Mona David fears that residents won’t have access to medical care beyond what the village clinic can provide.
“I just thought of the community, just in case we had an accident or if someone needs to fly out for medical purposes,” she said when she heard Ravn’s news.
In Mekoryuk, David is leading her tribe’s COVID-19 response and has initiated strict precautions to guard her small community against the coronavirus. In early March, a tribal police officer began meeting all passenger planes at the airstrip and requiring returning residents, along with all members of their households, to quarantine at home for 14 days. All travel in and out of the community requires tribal permission.
“We’re way out here, and we have to protect our community,” David said. “We mostly protect our Elders and children.”
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation said in an email to KYUK that it has reached out to the governor’s office for his plan regarding Ravn, and is awaiting a response.
Yute Commuter Service serves some of the communities that Ravn dropped. Yute General Manager Nathan McCabe sees an opportunity in Ravn’s cuts, and hopes Yute can pick up a portion of Ravn’s freight and bypass mail to boost its finances during these hungry economic times.
“So we will have more flights to do, which is great. Because that means we have more revenue coming in, and it will help the business stay afloat,” he said.
McCabe says that Yute has laid off or furloughed three-quarters of its staff over the past month to cut costs. He calls revenue from bypass mail “substantial.” The U.S. Postal Service pays the airline per pound of mail transported, and he’s seen a recent uptick in mail as more people hunker down and order supplies online.
“It’s a good profit for us, and it helps us make payments at the end of the month, helps us do payroll. So the more bypass we have, the better,” McCabe said.
Though the airline is continuing all its cargo routes, Yute is only flying village passengers into Bethel and not to other villages since most have banned intra-village travel. McCabe says that Yute will survive this pandemic, and is committed to serving its communities.
Hours after Ravn’s announcement, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a statement to rural Alaskans: “We want rural Alaskans to know the aviation industry is working cooperatively to ensure essential passenger service, bypass mail, and freight service is maintained to their communities during these uncertain times. This morning I also spoke with officials from the United States Postal Service, and they assured me they are working with contract carriers to maintain scheduled service to rural areas. The importance of the supply chain to rural Alaska communities is a priority for my administration.”
On March 27, the governor banned all non-essential travel in the state.
Alaska’s Congressional Delegation also issued a statement. Sens Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, along with Rep. Don Young, said: “We will continue to work to make sure that mail, as well as vital goods and services, can continue to be delivered to rural Alaskan communities.” They also said that “there will undoubtedly be gaps.”