In a change of plans from just a few weeks ago, the Alaska Marine Highway System reports it lacks enough crew to operate the Kennicott this summer.
The loss of the Kennicott from the schedule likely would mean dropping service to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and the loss of two additional port calls in Wrangell each month, May through September.
It also could jeopardize state ferry service to Yakutat on the cross-gulf route, and abandoning plans to run the Kennicott to Bellingham, Washington, once a month to help move the heavy load of summer travelers.
The Columbia is scheduled to make a weekly run between Bellingham and Southeast Alaska, though the ferry system in past summers has added a second ship part time to help handle the workload on the biggest revenue-generating route.
Under the anticipated timetable, the Columbia’s stops in Wrangell northbound and southbound on its weekly run would be the only service to the community this summer.
The Alaska Marine Highway System has been struggling to hire and retain enough crew the past couple of years to operate its full fleet. The final summer schedule will depend in great part on staffing levels.
Under an option presented to the nine-member state ferry system advisory board last Friday, three of the fleet’s eight main vessels would be laid up this summer for lack of crew (Kennicott), lack of crew and to save money (Tazlina), or due to costly repairs needed to put one of the ships (Matanuska) back into service.
Travelers cannot book reservations until the Alaska Marine Highway System adopts a summer schedule, stopping residents and tourists alike from making travel plans. The summer service starts in 60 days on May 1.
“We expect to release a final schedule soon,” Transportation Department spokesman Sam Dapcevich said in an email Feb. 22. Department officials had not responded as of Monday to when a schedule might be available for bookings.
“They don’t know … all I get is ‘shortly,’” Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes said last week.
Public comment on a draft summer schedule closed a month ago.
The state only “recently discovered that our current and projected crew levels, specifically the loss of specific-credentialed staff that facilitate the cross-gulf run, are insufficient to support the draft summer 2023 operating plan,” Dapcevich wrote in his Feb. 22 email.
The ferry system has briefed coastal lawmakers on the problem, and management will take comments from legislators and the citizens advisory board into consideration before adopting a summer schedule, Dapcevich wrote.
“That was a surprise and a big disappointment,” Rep. Dan Ortiz said of the news at the legislative briefing that the Kennicott could be tied up this summer. The loss of service to Prince Rupert “does not sit well with Ketchikan or Wrangell,” said the lawmaker, who represents both communities.
Rupert is popular with travelers as a much cheaper option than the longer sailing to Bellingham, even with the 900-mile drive from Bellingham to the northern British Columbia port city. The fare last summer for a car and driver between Bellingham and Wrangell totaled about $1,450 versus $460 between Prince Rupert and Wrangell.
“I think … the locals rely on that a little more,” Marjy Wood, owner of Tyee Travel in Wrangell, said of Prince Rupert service. “Bellingham is so hellaciously expensive.”
The Legislature last year appropriated enough money for a full summer schedule, Ortiz said. The crew shortage “shouldn’t be a surprise,” he said in an interview, adding, “more efforts should have been made” to hire enough personnel to run the ships.
Southeast ferry passenger counts have fallen by about 60% since 1992, with state budget cuts imposed in 2019 adding to the decline in service.
“It is extremely difficult to turn it around,” Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman said last week, adding that it is difficult to get back passengers without predictable service and advance scheduling so that travelers can make plans.
He attributed hiring problems to low morale and job insecurity.
Though the Alaska Marine Highway System knew it was short about 100 crew from full staffing, Transportation Department Deputy Commissioner Katherine Keith told the Senate Transportation Committee on Feb. 2 that the ferry system still hoped to run its full summer schedule.
She later explained that would require crew members picking up extra shifts and overtime to cover the work, and with management denying leave requests to maintain adequate staffing. Keith told senators the ongoing crew shortage is the “No. 1 risk factor” for the ferries.
The ferry system “burned people out last year,” Tony Karvelas, acting general manager, said at last week’s Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board meeting.
Despite hiring efforts, the crew count is pretty much flat from last year, he said, with the added problem that they lost people at some skilled positions.
“Across the board, we have shortages in order to run the schedule we have put out,” Karvelas said.
The state is stepping up its recruitment efforts, he told the board, including adding a staffer at the Transportation Department focused on ferry system hiring, and sending recruitment letters to every Alaska high school.
The advisory board voted 8-1 to recommend that the state pull the Kennicott from service this summer, rather than the Columbia, which can carry twice as many vehicles. Department officials told the board there is only enough crew to operate one of the two ships — the largest operational vessels in the fleet.
“It is a bitter pill,” said Wanetta Ayers, of Anchorage, an advisory board member.
State officials last week said they are looking at contracting with private operators to run smaller vessels into some of the communities that could see no service or reduced service this summer.
Pulling the Kennicott will allow the ferry system to put the smaller Hubbard into service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, which had been dependent on finding enough crew to staff the ship.
It costs the state about half as much for crew and fuel to run the Hubbard than the Kennicott — $228,000 a week versus $484,000, according to information presented to the advisory board.