The Skinny on Alaska Bush Airlines

Gant Aviation, Hooper Bay

So far, I’ve spent approximately $2500 in airline tickets ALONE, and only explored 6 villages in Western Alaska. Although only 2 villages are left on my list that are non-serviceable by ferry, the Winter ferry service may change that.

Like anything, not all bush airlines are created equally. But, in the light of recent reality TV shows, I felt compelled to comment on my experiences flying in the “bush”, especially when I felt fleeced, and when I didn’t.

Alaska Airlines

I only flew Alaska Air once, from Seattle to Kotzebue. It is a standard big name airline, with planes on time, nice flight attendant staff & desk staff. But, what really stood out was their customer service.

First off, I contacted their corporate philanthropy office to see if they’d sponsor the project. To my total shock, they returned my call! The lady contacted me same day even though covering for her boss! Although rejecting my proposal, she did redirect me to a state film resource page which was really helpful. Amazing in this day & age.

What really sealed it was one customer service rep, after yet another question with my mileage program and donations. Not only did she help me out thoroughly, when I mentioned the great service, she replied by saying she worked as a customer service rep for 12 YEARS!! She said she never would’ve done it if the company didn’t treat their employees so well. She said the airline truly enabled them to help people when they called, and didn’t tie the reps’ hands behind their back. Wow. That’s just unheard of.

Moral: fly Alaska Airlines & feel good about where your money is going.

Bering Air

Bering Air is by far my favorite “bush” service. Their planes run on time, when scheduled, and their flight routings make sense and are rarely changed. When compared to others, this is huge.

Plus, they allow “through-fares”. Here’s my example: when flying from Kotzebue to Wales, I had to overnight in Nome. Instead of charging me 2 separate flights, (Kotz-Nome, Nome-Wales), they charged a flight slightly discounted, as long as I did the Wales segment the next day. It was about $40 cheaper, and that’s a big help. You’ll see why in a minute.

What sealed it for me was the unprompted praise from EVERY pilot, EVERY desk rep. Wow – do the employees love this company! They said they were treated really well, like family. Here’s an amazing example: a desk rep in Unalakleet, who worked for Bering about 15 years, had a son who developed austism. She quit, to figure out how to care for her son in a remote village. After a year, the company called her & begged her to come back, asking what could they do to bring her back. They installed radio equipment and internet in her home, and gave her a laptop.  She could stay with her son until planes arrived or departed. When this mom told me this story, she nearly cried. Can you believe it? How many local employers would treat their employees like this? I can count on one hand, sadly.

Despite this, Bering has a few rough edges. If your bag goes over the 50 lb limit, the overage fee is per pound. I never even found out the rate. The desk clerk merely pounded on a calculator for 5 minutes, scribbled a number on a yellow ticket, and handed it to me. When I looked at the yellow ticket I nearly wet my pants. No matter how many times this happened, I nearly wet my pants each time. The charges were just that shocking.

I also didn’t know that, and was not informed by anybody in Kotzebue that first day, that I’d have to call the local rep in Point Hope, after booking the return flight with the Kotzebue desk. They still need your name on a magic piece of paper they hand to the pilot at the airstrip. After a few tries, I got it.

But, given this next story, I’m willing to forgive the minor slights. The pilot who took me from Point Hope to Kotzebue recognized me & my camera, from when I was interviewed on KOTZ radio. He asked his manager in Kotzebue if I could have a free ride, and it was granted. Woo! That saved me $200!! A hugely gracious gift.

Moral: do good research, fly Bering Air, and feel great about your money going to good local people in the local economy

Era Alaska, a.k.a. Hageland, a.k.a. Frontier

Era Alaska, famous or infamous, due to the “Flying Wild Alaska” reality TV show, is actually a banner name covering recent mergers of 3 airlines, Era, Hageland Air Services, and Frontier Alaska. Era was actually the least profitable of the 3, and losing money. The details of the merger are sketchy, and I’ve only heard rumours. However, the company is a mess.

Customer service is hit or miss. Only 1 gal here in the Bethel airport had any jump in her step. Other desk clerks, while smiling & looking pretty, seemed to loathe their job, and not give a hoot that I, as a customer, was standing there. The terminal in Bethel has a bag drop off that just slides the bags down a metal incline into a heap. Smaller airports had no bag drop off, and I just walked into the hangar to pick them up.

My routing from Unalakleet to Hooper Bay had several added stops that were unplanned.  This was the routing on Monday, October 11: Unalakleet, St. Michael’s, Stebbins (unplanned), Kotlick (unplanned – missed connection & 2.5 hour layover), St. Mary’s. Transfer to new plane for St. Mary’s, Mountain Village (5 miles away & unplanned), Bethel. Overnighted in Bethel & caught morning flight direct to Hooper Bay. *whew*

It was the most grueling 2 days of flight I’ve ever had, and that’s including flying to Asia. Every plane was a rinky dink Cessna 207, the smallest single engine bush plane in use. Some flights the cargo was so densely packed in, I didn’t think the passengers would fit.

Unalakleet to St. Mary’s was $230. St. Mary’s to Hooper Bay was $425!!! One way!!! The agent in St. Mary’s said that was even the PFD (Permanent Fund Dividend) discount price! She said she had to book the St. Mary’s to Bethel leg SEPARATELY from the Bethel to Hooper Bay leg. Talk about highway robbery! I don’t care how nice the desk clerks are, this was insane. By now, my bags were under 50lbs each, so thank heavens I had no additional overage charges. Ugh.

And even though Hooper Bay is halfway from St. Mary’s compared to Bethel, there is no standard routing this way.  Era only does charters from St. Mary’s to Hooper Bay ($1000).

Despite all this, Era does have several Native Alaskan pilots, whereas I didn’t meet any at Bering Air.

Moral: don’t take Era unless you have to, or you’re using Alaska Airlines miles…

Grant Aviation

Didn’t have the pleasure to fly with them. Their fleet seems pretty rickety & old out in the remote villages, but they had some newer planes in Bethel. Both their flights from Hooper Bay were full on Monday. They seem to have the routings people want/need.

Moral: not enough info to offer opinion; fly at own risk

Pen Air

Locals nicknamed this airline “when” Air, because the planes land & takeoff whenever they want. This is not a good sign. I also haven’t used them yet, and will try to avoid it. They mostly run small Cessna 207’s, but they seem in better shape than Grant’s fleet.

Moral: not enough info to offer opinion; fly at own risk

Well, there you have it. All you need to know about flying “bush” Alaska, to help keep your pocketbook from getting thrashed. Bon voyage!

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2 Responses to The Skinny on Alaska Bush Airlines

  1. n2av8n says:

    Why even mention the airlines you did not fly with? Pen Air has no Cessna 207’s. I am not partial to them. I just noticed the mistake. I hope you get to have more experiences in your future of flying Alaska. I would suggest South East, AK and Western, AK. Recommended destinations for AK. Seldovia, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, King Salmon (Brook’s Camp), Twin Lakes (“Dick” Proenneke’s Cabin), with a stop in Port Alsworth on your way, Hoonah, Haines and Kake, AK

    • marissa says:

      Thanks for stopping by & commenting. I wanted to give a complete list of airlines, even if I didn’t use them, so people just knew what was out there.

      The plan is to go back & finish the Alaska coast from Quinhagak down through the Southeast, as you suggest. Crossing fingers & knocking wood that 2012 will be the year I can complete the Alaska journey! Have a great new year!

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