The head of PenAir fielded questions Thursday from frustrated flyers in Unalaska.
Thirty island residents gathered at a public meeting to ask CEO Danny Seybert why their only option for traveling to and from Anchorage has been so unreliable over the last year.
“I’m embarrassed by last winter," said Seybert, referring to mechanical cancelations that have plagued the airline since its pilots started flying Saab 2000s. "It was the worst performance I’ve seen in the history of the company," he said.
The new planes are bigger and faster than the previous Saab 340s, but they’ve only completed 90 percent of scheduled flights.
Seybert said the problem is twofold: Mechanics are still learning how to maintain the new aircraft, and PenAir is still waiting on a fifth and final plane to join the fleet.
“I’m very confident that we’re going to work the bugs out and that the worst is behind us," he said. "I expect the fifth aircraft to be up and running in two to three weeks.”
Unalaskans were happy to hear the backup plane is nearly ready after an eight-month delay, but Mayor Frank Kelty pressed Seybert on why PenAir wasn’t better prepared for the transition.
“It would have been nice if you’d kept some of those 340s in Alaska to help cover for this issue," said Kelty.
In hindsight, Seybert agreed. But by the time the 2000s were having problems, PenAir had already won government contracts to fly the smaller planes in the Lower 48.
Seybert promised the expansion won’t hurt markets in southwest Alaska.
But many Unalaskans -- including Rachelle Hatfield -- said they’re already having problems with the current service, like frequently bumped baggage and difficulty rescheduling after cancelations.
“When patrons call PenAir to get an issue fixed, PenAir refers them to Alaska Airlines," said Hatfield. "When we call Alaska Airlines, they refer us to PenAir, and we really don’t get the issue resolved.”
Communication has been a problem since the beginning of PenAir’s longtime partnership with Alaska Airlines, according to Seybert.
He didn't offer a new solution. He encouraged flyers to continue contacting Alaska Airlines with questions about pricing and flight availability, while PenAir handles concerns about the planes themselves.
Meanwhile, Seybert explained PenAir’s decision to cancel Unalaska’s daily cargo flight. He said profits from mail delivery declined by a third in the last year, as a result of the new planes.
While ACE Air Cargo picks up most of the slack, he said PenAir will continue hauling limited freight on passenger flights.
“I’m not concerned that you guys are going to be without cargo service," Seybert told Unalaskans. "You’re going to have very close to the same capacity as when I was operating, if little ACE comes through with what they said they’re going to do.”
ACE will take over as Unalaska’s primary provider of air freight on June 1.