The new coronavirus pandemic and the bankruptcy of RavnAir Group has combined to drastically reduce travel at the Kenai Municipal Airport, the city’s airport manager said Tuesday.
Mary Bondurant, airport manager since 2007, said that April 2019 saw 6,441 passengers traveling out of Kenai, while this April saw just 359. May 2019 saw 7,198 passengers leaving Kenai, compared to 702 this May.
The numbers for June are not available yet, but the passengers leaving Kenai this year through May are down 18,000.
“We’re way down,” Bondurant said. “The virus hit, and we were facing those effects in March.
“With the Ravn bankruptcy, they quit flying into Kenai on April 5, and that kind of put a stop to any real traveling out of the Kenai airport.”
Grant Aviation still operates in Kenai. Bondurant said that before the virus hit, about three-quarters of the passengers leaving Kenai were on Ravn, with the other quarter going to Grant.
Bondurant said Grant operates nine-passenger planes, while Ravn was operating planes with over 30 seats. Before the pandemic, according to Bondurant, the airport got about $400,000 a year in revenue from Ravn and $130,000 from Grant.
According to Bondurant, the airport also receives money for airport improvement projects from the Federal Aviation Administration based on the number of passengers leaving Kenai each year. She said that is typically about $1.2 million per year. The number of passengers traveling out of Kenai is 95,000 to 100,000 per year.
Bondurant said she has been at the Kenai airport for over 21 years and has seen nothing like this. She said terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, meant a shutdown of flights for a few days.
The auction of RavnAir Group is expected to be held after Saturday but before a July 9 hearing scheduled to finalize a sale.
Bondurant said her hope is a new, larger carrier comes into Kenai soon. In July 2019, 13,000 passengers left Kenai.
“Hopefully, we’re not going to be impacted,” Bondurant said. “Hopefully, we’ll be successful in getting someone in here to pick that back up.”
In addition to getting a larger carrier back in the airport, Bondurant said demand needs to start picking up. She said Grant has been doing a great job meeting the demand of travelers to this point.
Dan Knesek, vice president of operations for Grant Aviation, said the pre-pandemic, weekday schedule for the Kenai-Anchorage route started planes at 5 a.m., with the last flight arriving at 11 p.m. This plan used two planes and three pilots.
When the pandemic first hit in late March, Knesek said Grant dropped to a plane and two pilots for the Kenai-Anchorage route. Those two pilots were not working a full schedule.
“We were flying based on demand and that wasn’t very much at all,” Knesek said.
Knesek said demand gradually built back up. Today, Grant will be back to the pre-pandemic flight schedule. Starting July 11, Grant will go seven days a week on the Kenai-Anchorage route by adding flights Saturday.
With Ravn flying a full schedule before the pandemic, Knesek said Grant tried flying Saturdays for a few months but had stopped flying Saturdays a few months before the pandemic hit.
Knesek said Grant will be dynamic in responding to need. He said it’s hard to forecast future demand.
“That’s a question I really can’t answer because of the pandemic,” he said.
Grant also serves the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Bristol Bay, Aleutian Chain and Alaska Peninsula. Systemwide, Knesek said passengers are down more than 50%. When the pandemic first hit, he said there were days passengers were down over 90%.
“We are surviving,” he said. “We have not laid off any employees. That’s a big deal.”
Knesek said Grant also gets revenue from delivering mail and food to rural villages. Residents of rural villages use Grant to do essential things like visit the doctor. Grant also operates a medevac aircraft out of Bethel.
“We’re helping them survive and they’re helping us survive,” Knesek said. “Working as one, we’ll get through this.”
Knesek said Grant is requiring masks in all terminal facilities and on flights, with exceptions for those under 2 years old and those who can’t wear a mask due to health issues. Passengers answer questions about COVID-19 symptoms, but there is no temperature check in Kenai.
Knesek said Grant aircraft are nonpressurized, so the air can’t be filtered like on pressurized aircraft. He did say Grant aircraft pump fresh air into the plane. He said planes are disinfected with a substance proven to stop the novel coronavirus, but also proven by aircraft manufacturers not to cause corrosion.
“That stuff is like liquid gold,” he said.
In addition to Grant’s increased flight schedule, Bondurant said there are more signs things are turning in the right direction in the airport. Brothers’ Cafe reopened May 4. The Upper Deck opened a week later.
Bondurant also said the airport is nearing the final few months of a terminal rehabilitation project made possible by a $12.5 million grant from the FAA. Alaska State Parks and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are also preparing to install a new gateway to public lands display July 11.