Akutan Hovercraft Replacement Proceeding Slowly
Thursday, March 14 2013
The Aleutians East Borough is moving ahead with a plan to replace the hovercraft that runs between Akutan and the airport on nearby Akun Island, but the timeline for swapping out the vessel is still up in the air.
Borough administrator Rick Gifford says the hovercraft has actually been more reliable than expected, “but it still has its limitations. A conventional vessel probably would be more reliable.”
Weather is the biggest challenge for the hovercraft. The latest operating report shows the hovercraft has almost 90 percent reliability, until the weather is factored in. Then the reliability drops to 50 percent. But Gifford says the bigger problem is cost. The hovercraft’s operating budget is roughly $3 million a year.
“And that’s just not sustainable on a long-term basis," Gifford says.
The borough expects to bring in about $500,000 from ticket sales this year, and is hoping the state legislature might chip in another million or so, but that still leaves $1.5 million. Gifford says cutting operating costs isn’t viable because of the price of fuel, insurance, and flying the hovercraft crews to and from Seattle on three week rotations.
“There’s not a lot that we can do because of the skills that are required by the crew. Maybe at some point in time we might be able to keep the crew in Akutan longer, especially in the summertime. That might reduce some of our travel and costs, but ultimately I think we’ve got to look at other options."
Gifford says the borough would like to study alternatives like landing crafts, helicopters, and in the long-term, a dock. But a study hasn’t been contracted yet, and as the borough starts drafting its 2014 budget, it looks like funding for the hovercraft will probably be up for discussion.
Hovercraft operations manager Marty Robbins says he’s been asked to write a budget for fiscal year 2014, and that he's hopeful the borough will keep the hovercraft running until it finds an alternative.
They may not have a choice. For now, the hovercraft is the only way to get between the airport and town.