Island Air Express adds new regional service

To offer its new service to Petersburg and Juneau, Island Air Express purchased this nine-passenger plane called a Pilatus PC-12‚ a pressurized, 300 mile-per-hour, high-altitude, turbine-powered aircraft operating at flight levels above the weather. It's capable of reaching 30,000 feet. Photo courtesy of Scott Van Valin

Island Air Express has added new permanent, year-round, regional service to Juneau and Petersburg, adding to its long-time service between Ketchikan and Klawock.

“It’s like rebuilding another arm of our company, where we have a successful, well-proven arm for people to travel between Prince of Wales and Ketchikan,” said Scott Van Valin, the company’s director of operations and co-owner.

Island Air has offered service to Klawock for 10 years now, and just recently began studying the market for faster service between Juneau, Petersburg and Ketchikan. It’s now the only company in Ketchikan to offer such flights between the First City, besides Alaska Airlines.

Van Valin said the new regional service, now almost in its third month, has started slow, as expected, but is gaining ridership. He added the company didn’t give the service unrealistic expectations in the beginning, and it is a building and marketing process.

“Up here, things spread mostly from other people talking about it,” he said.

The company’s goal at the moment is building ridership. People who often travel between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales are familiar with Island Air, but for people who don’t, its services might be unknown to them, Van Valin said. He wants people to know there is a new flight option that will get people to Juneau and back in the same day.

“It basically brings the trip between Ketchikan and Juneau — wheels up in Ketchikan, and an hour later you’re in Juneau,” Van Valin said. “It’s definitely a time saver, and that’s kind of what our market was.”

Because there are only nine seats on the plane, it’s not a solution for everyone. The director of operations said it’s mainly for people who are short on time and possibly want to save time on doing a day’s worth of business in Petersburg or Juneau. The other flying options likely don’t allow people to get back to Ketchikan in the same day.

Based on the new flight schedule for the regional service, someone could leave Ketchikan at 7 a.m. for Juneau, and depart Juneau at 5:45 p.m. on its last flight to Ketchikan. There will be three flights to and from Juneau each day, and the first one at 7 a.m. stops in Petersburg.

Van Valin said the reason for this is because Island Air is trying to help residents of Petersburg get more options on Alaska Airlines by stopping in Juneau next. This way, Petersburg residents will have more service north and south rather than the one flight north and one flight south that they currently have.

“We’re trying to complement Alaska (Airlines) and give … passengers more opportunity to get on Alaska,” Van Valin said.

Alaska Airlines did not respond to Daily News’ call for comment by deadline Tuesday.

When asked if the service and ridership is being tested to see if it will be a permanent fixture, Van Valin had a straightforward answer.

“That would be a fairly substantial and expensive experiment,” he said. “We studied this concept for two years prior to pulling the trigger on it; looking at different aircraft, different routes and what we needed to do to make it work.”

That studying of the right aircraft for the job led to the purchase of a new nine-passenger plane called a Pilatus PC-12 — a pressurized, 300 mile-per-hour, high-altitude, turbine-powered aircraft operating at flight levels above the weather. According to Van Valin, it’s capable of reaching 30,000 feet.

It’s a sleeker, faster aircraft that will have passengers feeling like they’re on an airline because of its pressurization, Van Valin noted. It’s designed to go high, fast and far.

The new aircraft is different from the other four the company operates. Those planes are limited to about 10,000 feet or lower, meaning they aren’t able to gain higher altitude for long-distance trips and aren’t able to get out of the weather like the Pilatus is.

“We just didn’t feel that it was the right aircraft to do year-round service between, you know, anything further north than what we do currently between Klawock and Ketchikan just because its capabilities in the winter for that long of a route just isn’t what we want to be involved with,” Van Valin explained.

Ideally, Island Air would prefer to have two of these aircraft that share the same routes and possibly open up some other flight options.

The director of operations said they’re concentrating on the new regional service first, but once things stabilize and the service is proven, Van Valin thinks the company could offer another one shortly after.  

“We’ve looked into doing scheduled service into Canada; mostly, probably Smithers or Prince Rupert, or both in the future,” he noted.

At present, the Ketchikan-based Misty Fjord Air operated roundtrip flights between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert on Fridays.

Regional service such as this has been offered several times in the past, from companies such as Ellis Air Lines before 1940, and Air One, a part of Taquan Air, in the late 1990s, according to Van Valin. Those companies were flying under the same commercial designation as Alaska Airlines with a 19-passenger aircraft, whereas Island Air’s new service is operating under a different commercial designation.

There are other differences between what has been offered in the past and Island Air’s new service.

“There’s been commuter service, like back in the day with the floatplanes and the Ellis Air days, but none one of it was (instrumental flight rules), so it was low and down in the terrain — I would call it bad weather,” Van Valin said.

There are two sets of rules for flying: visual flight rules and instrument flight rules. IFR-approved aircraft can fly in zero visibility, and visual flight rules legally do not allow pilots to fly if they do not have the required visibility or ceiling. Van Valin said VFR flying has been the standard of flying in Alaska for many years because “that’s what most the planes have.”

Island Air Express is certified to fly its aircraft under instrument flying rules. While many floatplanes were not operating on Tuesday’s rainy day, Island Air Express’ aircraft were.

“As technology evolves, the IFR system I think will become more popular and bring a higher level of safety to the state; all of the state, as we go forward,” Van Valin said.

Jerry Scudero, the former owner of Taquan Air, said when Air One tried the regional service, it was short-lived. It lasted less than a year. When asked why he believes the service didn’t flourish, Scudero said he thinks the company used the wrong airplane, among other reasons.

Scudero said it’s expensive to do, as well, but he seemed confident that Island Air Express would be successful.

“I think what he’s done is he’s been regular — regular being he started his service over to Prince of Wales and he’s done a good job at it, and been patient, and I think that in time, things will come,” Scudero noted, adding that Van Valin and his wife, Nani, have made it happen. “You can’t expect, and this is what happened with us, … you can’t expect returns in the first couple of years. I think that he’s probably planned for that.”

Scudero is someone who Van Valin would consider an aviation expert, adding that Scudero was a commercial pilot for many in Ketchikan, and at one point, he had the largest float plane company in the world.

“He knows about what our concept is,” Van Valin said. “ … He is what anybody would consider an expert in Southeast aviation, for sure.”

Island Air Express is open 361 days out of the year to offer its new and existing services, according to Van Valin. The company was named outstanding business of the year by the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, and he reiterated that his company has proven itself as a company for the past 10 years.

Van Valin believes this new service will be well-appreciated once people give it a try.

“Our motto is, ‘Fly safe, fly smart.’ … We put that at the front of everything we do,” he said.