The mail got through to Akutan last week, after a brief suspension when Peninsula Airways suddenly stopped flying the amphibious Grumman Goose. A few days later, Grant Aviation carried the mail and passengers on a charter flight to the new airport on Akun Island on Oct. 25. The Goose made its last water landing in Akutan on Oct. 21, at the community identified on maps as "Akutan SPB," for seaplane base. In September, the remote Aleutian Island community's first airport opened, though the mail still has to go to a dock to get to the post office.
And while a famous though unofficial post office motto claims that tough weather won’t prevent the "swift completion" of mail delivery, that's never been the reality in Akutan, so a few days late was no big deal.
Akutan mayor Joe Bereskin said charter mail delivery will continue pending regular service involving federal subsidies through the Essential Air Service program, with no action scheduled until a public comment period ends on Nov. 8.
Grant is serving Akun with a nine passenger King Air.
The new airport at Akun Island has a 4,500-foot-long paved runway complete with pilot-activated lighting for night landings, with a construction cost of between $50 million and $55 million, said Bereskin, who said that money budgeted for the hovercraft link makes the airport's cost seem higher.
Plans for a new $11 million hovercraft changed, and instead the Aleutians East Borough decided to use one it already owns, formerly located in King Cove. Now, that money is being used to operate the hovercraft, Bereskin said. He said the city contributed $500,000 and Trident Seafoods spent $1 million for the hovercraft, with the borough providing most of the funding.
Akutan's city limits were expanded to include Akun earlier this year by the state Local Boundary Commission.
The hovercraft carries passengers and mail and other freight between the village and Akun, about 7 miles apart and a ten minute ride, though the hovercraft's docking process makes the trip longer, Bereskin said.
The trip takes about 20 minutes, said hovercraft operator Mike Richards, an employee of HoverLink in Seattle. HoverLink general manager Marty Robbins said the service is funded with a $2.5 million annual contract paid by the Aleutians East Borough, which owns the airborne vessel Suna X.
The abrupt grounding of the Goose came as a surprise, and one passenger who spent a couple of extra days in Unalaska was the mayor's son, Darren Bereskin, when he returned from Hawaii via Anchorage on Oct. 23.
"I can’t believe that just last week I was flying out of there on that thing. It kind of came out of nowhere that it stopped flying," he said, while pondering his travel options in the airport terminal in Unalaska.
The next day, though, he flew home on Grant, along with the mail and a full load of passengers.
This was not a new experience, and a lot shorter compared to when Goose service was frequently halted by the weather, and stayed grounded in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.
"In the wintertime, it could be an easy three weeks. Then you’d have one day. Then you’d have another two weeks," Bereskin said.
Plan B: Traditional Aleutian Islands travel
In aviation’s absence, there was always Plan B, as in boat, the way people have traditionally traveled between Aleutian islands, from kayaks and skiffs to salmon seiners and pollock trawlers.
"That would probably be your best chance in the wintertime, take a boat. Of course, you'd have to reschedule your flight to Anchorage," he said.
And during the brief suspension of mail service last week, the mail that accumulated at the Dutch Harbor Post Office was small compared to when the Goose couldn't fly because of the weather, according to the postmaster.
Pen Air stopped Goose service, fearing damage to the plane on the gravel beach in front of the village after the concrete docking ramp was rebuilt for the hovercraft, making it inaccessible to the float plane.
Bereskin, a lifelong Akutan resident, recalled as a child attending the ramp’s dedication ceremony in memory of pilot Nick Sias, who died in a Goose crash in 1996. Sias had used the ramp many times, and a piece of the aircraft that later washed ashore provided confirmation of the tragedy and "closure," former Unalaska harbormaster Jim Severns said at the time.
Each year Bereskin, age 23, figured he flew four or five roundtrips between Akutan and Unalaska about 40 miles away, earning frequent flyer miles through Pen Air's affiliation with Alaska Airlines. Now he says he won't be getting credit toward free Alaska flights from the short hop between islands.
It might not sound like much, but it adds up," he said.