The Alaska Department of Transportation has told a local airline that it will not clear snow from the runway at the Klawock Airport after 1 p.m. this winter.
A DOT spokeswoman said that is the established policy, and has been for a while. But the primary airline that uses that state-run airport said this is a new development, and it will significantly affect its ability to serve residents of Prince of Wales Island.
Aurah Landau with DOT said the Klawock Airport is considered an unattended airport. But, she said, DOT personnel provide snow-removal during the maintenance station’s regular hours of operation, which are 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays.
Landau said that service level is the same as previous winters. She said the commercial airline – Island Air Express – has added flights after those hours. That poses a challenge for DOT’s six Prince of Wales Island employees.
“DOT’s ability to offer regular plowing for commercial, private companies at the airport beyond the long-established service hours is constrained,” she said. “That’s because staff serving the airport are also detailed to plowing the roads between the eight communities on the island. It’s 355 lane miles of roadway. There’s a lot of road that needs plowing.”
But, Scott Van Valin of Island Air Express said the business has only added one flight to its schedule this winter. Others that arrive and depart after 1 p.m. have been in place for about a decade, he said, and DOT has always maintained the runway in Klawock for those flights.
Van Valin said he’s not aware of any official hours for maintenance at the airport.
“That might be the official ending time for DOT is 1:30 in Klawock and maybe it’s been that way forever, but what we see on the operations end is when a plow is needed, we’ve always had the ability to count on DOT to come in and clear the runway so our aircraft can get back,” he said.
DOT has offered to clear the runway for flights after 1 p.m. at a charge of $1,000 per hour. Landau said that fee is established in statute, and DOT doesn’t have the ability to reduce it.
Van Valin said the fee is prohibitive for the business.
Another concern is over medevac flights, and whether the runway will be cleared for medical emergencies. Prince of Wales has limited health care facilities and any serious cases must be flown quickly to a larger community with more services.
Landau said DOT will always clear the runway for medical emergencies.
“It’s always been DOT’s policy to plow at any time for medevacs and emergency situations and to plow free of charge,” she said.
But, Van Valin said the newly enforced policy could lead to a deadly delay. He said it will take valuable time for a DOT employee to get to the airport, warm up equipment and get the runway cleared.
“That’s nice that they’re offering to do it for free, but it’s not realistic,” he said. “A runway that hasn’t been plowed since 1 p.m. on a night medevac flight, it’s going to delay the medevac service even more than it already is.”
Landau said DOT and Island Air Express representatives have met only once so far. She said DOT officials hope to continue the conversation and find a resolution.
The Klawock Airport is the only airport serving Prince of Wales Island’s eight communities.