This week, Mother Nature wreaked havoc on rural Alaska air travel


Last fall I noticed my neighbor, an Alaska Airlines pilot, loading his bag within the automobile. He had his uniform on and was preparing for a visit.

“Hi Danny,” I mentioned. “How much does the weather impact your flight schedule?”

He didn’t reply straight away. Captain Purvis is a considerate man. He put his bag within the automobile, shut the door and walked nearer, so I’d make sure to get the message.

“All flying is weather,” he mentioned.

I nodded, and he drove off to the airport.

Those phrases caught with me as Mother Nature was wreaking havoc on our transportation system this week.

It was snowing in Seattle, which isn’t good. Alaska Airlines reduce their schedule there by 20% earlier this week, partly to accommodate the additional time it takes to de-ice the plane previous to departure.

Hundreds of flights have been canceled — and the ripple results have been felt right here in Alaska and all through the airline’s system.

[Days of cancellations and bad weather in Seattle and beyond ensnare Alaska travelers]

Up in Fairbanks, the issue wasn’t snow. They’re used to that. It was rain. Lots of it. Freezing rain.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Warbelow’s Air canceled all of their flights to locations together with Minto, Tanana, Beaver, Rampart, Circle and Central.

Then on Wednesday, Warbelow’s misplaced energy to its hangar on the east ramp of the Fairbanks airport.

All of Warbelow’s planes are twin-engine Piper Navajos. These small planes symbolize the “last mile” within the transportation system to rural Alaska. Bush residents depend on the planes for mail, for medical appointments, for purchasing journeys and as an important hyperlink to see pals and kinfolk Outside.

The climate issues in Fairbanks additionally affected travel to villages alongside the North Slope: Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Wainwright, Atqasuk and Point Lay.

Wright Air flies from Utqiagvik to those villages with mail and freight, along with passengers.

“Our fleet is pinned down in Fairbanks,” mentioned Matt Atkinson, who referred to as in from the Wright Air hangar in Utqiagvik.

“We managed to get one (Cessna 208) Caravan up to Utqiagvik. Two more are scheduled to come up … but we can’t move anything,” he mentioned.

With the one Cessna, Atkinson and his co-workers are chipping away on the 50,000 to 60,000 kilos of freight and mail that has backed up within the hangar in Utqiagvik.

“The weather is good up here,” mentioned Atkinson.

“A few guests are frustrated, but most folks know how it goes,” he mentioned. “We care and we try.”

Things improved on Thursday for Warbelow’s in Fairbanks. On Facebook, the airline posted: “Not to brag, but we flew just about everywhere that had a runway plowed today.”

“Rain in December is never a good idea,” mentioned Fen Kinneen, chief pilot at Bering Air in Nome.

Kinneen was searching of his workplace window throughout an ice rink of an airport.

“This week was a perfect storm of increased mail in Nome and Kotzebue, combined with bad weather and incredible holiday traffic,” he mentioned. “Many teachers were headed Outside for the holidays and want to come back after Jan. 1.”

Before Christmas, Bering Air had three closures in a row. “Mail piles up. The lobby is full and folks are stacked up in our breakroom,” he mentioned.

As the rain moved in, it coated every Bering Air aircraft that was parked exterior.

“We don’t have enough de-icing fluid in town. So we have to bring each aircraft in to the hangar to warm up. That takes about 1.5-2 hours to thaw out,” he mentioned.

In Nome, Bering Air has eight Cessna Caravans, three Beechcraft 1900s, two King Airs and a cargo-only CASA 212. Up in Kotzebue, the place Bering Air maintains one other hub, there are about eight Caravans able to fly.

Bering Air serves 32 locations from its hubs in Nome, Kotzebue and Unalakleet. That consists of St. Lawrence Island, Little Diomede, Shishmaref, Kobuk and Kivalina.

“We have a lot of planes and nowhere to go,” he mentioned. That’s as a result of lots of the village runways the place they fly are polished and slippery — particularly after final week’s excessive winds. “We had gusts up to 61 knots,” mentioned Kinneen.

Bering Air is placing the ultimate touches on a brand new hangar in Nome that will likely be large enough to accommodate all the morning flights directly, in line with Kinneen.

Bethel has been an unlucky chokepoint in final week’s travel bottleneck. Passengers, freight and mail are stacking up.

[Hundreds of air passengers headed for villages have been stranded in Bethel through the holidays due to endless storms]

At the Grant Aviation terminal in Bethel, the place vacationers fan out to greater than 30 villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, native residents put collectively a buffet for stranded vacationers. There have been sandwiches, but in addition diapers and different necessities.

“Weather is a fact of life out here,” mentioned Bethel Mayor Mark Springer. “It’s not an unusual occurrence for folks to be stuck out here.”

But issues stacked up shortly in Bethel. According to Rob Kelley, president of Grant Air, there may be greater than 1. 2 million kilos of mail to be delivered.

Grant Air flies a fleet of Cessna 208s and C207s. They are restricted to a most of 9 passengers, so every flight is a “combi” flight with passengers and freight. On a traditional schedule, Grant flies between 50 and 60 flights per day, transporting between 200 and 250 passengers.

Rather than the variety of passengers, Kelley concentrates on the payload for every flight: 2,200-2,400 kilos. It’s an essential consideration since Grant permits vacationers 90 kilos of bags.

Most of Grant’s passengers are coming in to Bethel to see the physician. If their appointment is within the morning, they buy groceries within the afternoon and fly again to the village on the finish of the day.

After Bethel obtained a record-breaking quantity of freezing rain final week that coated every part, the largest concern for aviators was the polished ice on the runways.

“Alaska’s Department of Transportation has equipment at the airport to maintain the runways. But it takes time to get them ready,” mentioned Kelley.

In spite of all of the delays, Kelley finds Bush vacationers are extra understanding of flight delays and cancellations. “They’re seasoned travelers,” he mentioned. “They’ve been through what Alaska has to offer.”