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Akutan Airport: Good News for Trident Seafoods – Long-term Benefits for Alaska?

After about ten years of investigation, studies, assessments, and meetings, the Akutan Airport Construction Project, awarded to Kiewit Infrastructure West Company, got underway on Akun Island in March of 2010 and is to be finished in the fall of 2012. There, Kiewit is building a 4,500 foot long paved runway, a taxiway, an apron, a sand storage building, a snow removal equipment building, a hovercraft maintenance and storage facility, three hovercraft landing pads, an access pad, and surrounding roads. According to Alaska DOT web site information, the federal budget slated for the project is $54,565,000.00. The total cost of the project, which is purported to be around $75 million, is additionally funded with state and local funding, including $1 million from Trident Seafoods Company. In addition to the airport on Akun Island, a hovercraft storage facility, pad, and ramp are under construction at Akutan Island. The hovercraft portion of the project is said to cost around $13 million, $11 million of which buys the hovercraft itself.

Akutan and Akun Islands are located about halfway into the Aleutian Chain, just east of Unalaska Island. The Akutan Island terrain is not amenable to building an airport, which is why Akutan Airport is being built on uninhabited Akun Island. Akun Island is about seven miles east across Akutan Harbor, so hovercraft service is crucial for connecting the airport with the City of Akutan.

The hovercraft is an 89-foot BHT-130WD (British Hovercraft Technology), built to spec by Kvichak Marine Industries in Seattle, called SUNA X. According to the Aleutians East Burough web site, Hoverlink, LLC, will operate it. However, a BHT-130 serving a nearby community has proven very costly to operate and is not always up to winter conditions. That BHT-130 has sat out of service for significant periods of time. Without this hovercraft, or some similar reliable, reasonably guaranteed form of transport, reaching Akutan Airport from Akutan Island will be difficult at best.

The City of Akutan has a permanent population of roughly one hundred individuals. Seasonal workers employed at nearby Trident Seafoods Company swell the population during the summer months to closer to 1,000. Historically, the Akutan community has been served bi-monthly between May and October by an Alaskan Marine Highway System ferry out of Kodiak, and a G-21A Grumman Goose seaplane, operated by Peninsula Airways, when conditions allow. PenAir is the only airline serving this area, with the G-21A flying between Akutan Island and Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island.

The durable twin-prop G-21A can withstand many of the harsh weather and sea conditions where other sea-landing aircraft would fail. Unfortunately, Grummans were built only during the World War II era, so, over six decades later, maintenance and parts fabrication are difficult and costly. There is no question that the G-21A must be replaced. The thing is, the G-21A lands on water, and any aircraft reliable enough to replace it will require an airport. (The aging seaplane is among the reasons for the airport.) The current plan is to replace the G-21A with a Navajo Chieftain. Because Akutan Airport will be a Class B-II airport, accommodating aircraft with wingspans of 49 to 78 feet traveling between 91 and 120 knots, the Saab 340, which flies out of Anchorage, will also be able to land there. PenAir will continue to be the carrier serving this area.

There have been questions as to why this airport should be built at such expense when it’s so remote and serves a specific, small community. If it weren’t for Trident, would this airport be built at all? Many have eyed the Akutan Airport project with trepidation, recalling the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens’ well-known “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $398 million project which never got underway after being labeled as pork barrel spending. That bridge would have connected the fifty or so people living on Gravina Island and the airport located there to the town of Ketchikan, replacing a five-minute ferry ride across the half-mile Tongass Narrows.

On the other hand, might this Akutan Airport open the way for positive population and economic growth for this part of Alaska? The City of Akutan is a busy port town, after all, with the Trident facility there said to be the largest seafood processing plant in North America, processing such catch as pollock, halibut, and other fish, king and snow crab, and producing pollock roe, surimi, fish meal, and fish oil. It runs at varying capacities year-round and can process up to three million pounds of fish a day. An argument can be made that what’s good for Trident at Akutan is good for the economy and therefore good for the Alaskan people. If the airport and hovercraft connection works smoothly, better access in and out of Akutan for local citizens, fishers, Trident employees, and other workers, and freer transport of products could result.

As with most things, time will tell, and we’ll have a clearer picture at the end of this year.