By Scott McMurren
Cordova is a lovely town, even in late November.
I flew over Wednesday on a school project, arriving at last light. Driving into town, I could barely make out the slopes of the mountains surrounding Eyak Lake. But there was water everywhere, including a fair amount falling from the sky.
The 40-minute flight from Anchorage (Alaska Airlines Flight 66) arrives each day just after 4 p.m. There’s another flight that comes from Juneau and Yakutat (Flight 61). Since ferry service was eliminated through spring, the two flights are the only way in or out of Cordova this winter. That is, unless you have your own boat or you elect to charter a plane.
The ferry, known as the Alaska Marine Highway System, is the “road” to Cordova. It’s how the 2,100 residents connect to pavement in Whittier and Valdez. Whether it’s for a monthly grocery run, a school trip to Anchorage or a trip to visit friends in Fairbanks, the ferry is baked into the way of life for this coastal fishing community.
Although ferry service is scheduled to resume in May, the M/V Aurora, which serves the route to Cordova, now is out of service with no plans to do necessary repairs. This adds to growing uncertainty in Cordova about when, or if, ferry service will resume.
“This is a severe disruption that is borderline destruction of our community, our economy and our schools,” said Cathy Renfeldt, executive director of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce.
“The marine highway is a foundation on which the community is built. I feel disenfranchised, abandoned by my state,” she said.
It’s exciting when a new airline or cruise ship starts serving communities in our state. Usually it means more competition, better customer service and lower prices. The flip side, when a vital piece of transportation infrastructure is removed, ushers in a host of consequences.
“With the ferry’s regular schedule, we had businesses who bought box trucks designed to fit on the boat,” said Renfeldt. “They would drive to Anchorage or other communities on the road system, load up supplies and come back to Cordova. Now, those goods will be coming from Seattle.”
Renfeldt is co-sponsoring a plan to restructure the ferry to provide “consistent, reliable marine transportation services to Alaska communities.”
Cordova’s two flights on Alaska Airlines are crucial to keep the community connected to the rest of the state. But the ferry was essential for vehicles, the seafood industry, tourism and health care. Renfeldt’s short-term goal is to get one of the state’s operational ferries (like the M/V Tustumena) to add Cordova to its ports of call.
Renfeldt and I were in the restaurant at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, one of the few full-service restaurants that stays open in the winter. Even at night, you can see all of the fishing boats in the harbor. Cordova’s fishing fleet is one of the state’s most productive. Much of the popular Copper River salmon is processed on shore.
The situation in Cordova underscores the critical nature of consistent, dependable transportation infrastructure. Yet even with good air service, things can go wrong.
“That was our swim team on the PenAir flight that crashed in Dutch Harbor,” said Renfeldt.
Indeed, when PenAir Flight 3296 crashed on Oct. 17, the Cordova High School swim team was aboard.
Ever since then, Dutch Harbor has struggled with the disruption of regular air service from Anchorage. Immediately following the Saab 2000 crash, Ravn Alaska — which owns PenAir — canceled scheduled service. The city of Unalaska declared a state of emergency to fund private charters while Ravn and Alaska Airlines worked on solutions (Alaska Airlines marketed the Saab 2000 flights). Ravn subsequently started service to the Unalaska airport with a slower, smaller aircraft, the de Havilland Dash 8.
“This impacts my ability to market Unalaska and Dutch Harbor as a tourist destination,” said Carlin Enlow, head of the Unalaska Visitors Bureau.
But for her community, the changes are profound, said Enlow. “When Alaska Airlines marketed the PenAir flights, we were able to leverage the mileage plan.” she said.
In addition to earning frequent flyer miles on the flight to Dutch Harbor, travelers were able to use their Alaska Airlines credit card companion fares and earn award tickets for the miles they’ve flown. Also, all of their credit card charges helped travelers accumulate additional miles to exchange for tickets.
Ravn’s new flights on the Dash 8s are not affiliated with Alaska Airlines. Accordingly, travelers cannot use Alaska Air miles for tickets. That means residents much purchase a $1,200 round-trip ticket to get to Anchorage.
Enlow is worried about the onset of the busy winter fishing season, which starts at Christmas. Currently, Ravn doesn’t have any flights scheduled past Christmas, when hundreds of fisheries workers start arriving.
For its part, Alaska Airlines is rebooking all of its travelers on Ravn flights at no additional charge, even if they’re traveling on award tickets.
Not only is Enlow concerned about the impending influx of fisheries workers. She’s also worried about local residents being able to get a seat on the busy flights. “Alaska Air used to have a program for locals to get a seat for medical or family emergencies. I don’t know how Ravn will handle this. The uncertainty is all-consuming,” she said.
Cordova and Dutch Harbor are not the only communities struggling with basic transportation infrastructure. Many communities in Southeast Alaska also are working to find solutions in light of dwindling or disappearing ferry service, including Haines, Skagway and Ketchikan. Further, communities throughout Alaska that are dependent solely on air service struggle with the high costs of flights to or from the Bush.
Those of us in Anchorage enjoy a robust transportation infrastructure. Lots of airlines fly in and out of our airport. The same is true for Fairbanks. Occasionally, we’ve used state and federal funds to subsidize airlines to provide service because of the increased economic activity it generates.
In Anchorage, we’re particularly proud of the economic engine that is the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Freight and passenger numbers are up. Things are looking good.
Isn’t it past time to share our good fortune with our rural communities who are willing to travel here on business and for vacation? That’s what transportation infrastructure does: It builds paths for commerce and to better connect friends and families. Transportation infrastructure helps connect Alaskans.
“The lack of support for maritime and air travel to rural communities is mind-boggling to me,” said Dutch Harbor’s Enlow.
“The Alaska Marine Highway started before the oil money started flowing and is an integral part of Alaska’s transportation infrastructure for the the 75,000 people in coastal Alaska communities,” said Cordova’s Renfeldt.
These transportation solutions take more than a supplemental budget appropriation — although that’s a good start. It calls for rural and urban Alaska residents pulling together to improve basic transportation infrastructure: air, land, rail and surface transportation. It’s safer and more secure for Alaskans. And for a state whose citizens are spread across such a wide area, it’s the right thing to do.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @alaskatravelGRM and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.