Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 2:10 PM on Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Safety, seafood driving airport improvements

By Jonathan Grass
Morris News Service - Alaska

Small towns from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to the far-flung Aleutian Islands are some of the trickiest areas to get to and aircraft is often the only means to do so. Improving access, safety and economic benefits are driving renovations moving forward in several such places this year.

Akutan represents the biggest example. The tiny city has no paved airport. Passengers currently get in or out by way of the amphibious aircraft, the Grumman Goose. Construction is under way for a 4,500-foot paved runway, which Project Manager Sean Holland said will open up the tiny town to more advantages.

Holland said the $56 million project is easily the biggest transportation infrastructure project Akutan has had. It's expected to be completed by Sept. 1. The contractor is Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. of Anchorage.

The new paved airport will be serviced by a Navajo aircraft operated by PenAir, which also operates the Grumman Goose. The Navajo is a slightly bigger plane with nine-passenger capacity. Holland said the real advantage, however, is long-term possibilities for flights to Anchorage instead of Unalaska.

Akutan is home to the largest seafood processing plant in the North America, owned by Trident Seafoods, and large influxes of fishermen, processing workers and other crews will be able to rotate more frequently and transport product more efficiently.

Plans also are moving forward with a master airport plan in Cold Bay to address several renovation needs, including runway length, pavement issues, safety zones, visibility zones and airport land. Cost estimates for the short-term plan are around $37 million.

Ernie Weiss, the natural resources director of Aleutians East Borough, said there has been a big push for an apron to the new Aleutians East Borough terminal building. A major part of this effort is to develop a direct route from Cold Bay to Chinese markets.

He said the ability to fly direct would enable more live crab and seafood transports with less dead loss. Flights currently go through Anchorage, which means an extra 1,400 miles in the air plus downtime at the airport.

Unalaska, home to the nation's perennial leader in seafood landings, is gearing up for its own airport renovations. Bids will go out this year for runway renovations, airfield lighting, safety area work, taxiway and apron resurfacing, drainage improvements and relocating a segment of Ballyhoo Road. Engineering estimates put the project between $30 million and $40 million. Most of the substantial work is expected to be done by October 2013.