Little Diomede included in the Essential Air Service Program
Diomede is a little less isolated thanks to a bill signed by President Trump on Oct. 5. The reauthorization of the FAA’s Essential Air Service program includes language, which makes Diomede eligible and a full-status EAS member. Another sixty rural communities in Alaska are already served by the EAS.
Since November 2012 Diomede has been served by the Air Transportation to Non-Eligible Places statute, ATNEP for short. The program requires a 50 percent match from the State of Alaska. The contract has been for $389,952 with Pathfinder Aviation, an Anchorage based helicopter flight service. A ticket from Nome to Diomede costs $700 round trip. There are currently three flights a month. Pathfinder also has the mail contract and flies every Wednesday to the island.
“We can carry as much as thirty two people, eight at a time,” said Pathfinder pilot Mike Kutyba. “We run from Nome to Diomede, Diomede to Wales, Wales back to Diomede, and then Diomede to Nome. On each of those legs we can carry up to eight people.” Kutyba is a retired US Navy helicopter pilot. On Monday eleven people were headed to Diomede. Eight boarded in Nome and flew directly to Diomede. Three flew to Wales on RAVN where they were picked up by Kutyba and flown to Diomede. A Wales to Diomede ticket costs $200 each way. “The Wales leg is just to catch overflow when I don’t have room to take them,” said Kubyta.
In 1978 President Reagan deregulated the airlines and it was feared there’d be a stampede to the big cities where the passengers are and rural towns would lose their air service. A subsidy to the less-lucrative small markets was created as an incentive for air carriers to fly there. EAS service was extended only to destinations, which had regularly scheduled air service. Since Diomede had no regularly scheduled service it was not included in the EAS program.
Only by flying with the mail carrier could islanders get a ride in or out. It was standby only and the space was severely limited.
“The postal contract is totally separate,” said John Bioff, Kawerak’s general counsel. “And that’s what got passengers back and forth for decades before this ATNEP program in 2012. The only way you could get on or off the island was space available with the postal service. If there was room.”
In November of 2012 the ATNEP program began and Pathfinder provided three flights a month. This was a dramatic increase in the number of space available to Diomede people who needed to fly. Kawerak’s role is to manage the Alaska half of the grant to Pathfinder. “On behalf of Diomede we’ve gone to the state every year and asked for the legislative grant that we’ve received,” said Bioff. “So we receive that grant. It’s actually Kawerak, Pathfinder, and US DOT that have entered into contracts every year for this ATNEP program for air service. On behalf of Diomede we’re doing the legwork to make sure they’ve had air service every year under contract with the DOT and through funding with the state and the federal government.”
Bioff met in Washington with DOT people working on the reauthorization of the EAS. In 2020 when the current contract with Pathfinder ends they’ll put out a request for proposals to choose an air carrier to continue the service. “Our goal at Kawerak, on behalf of Diomede, is to advocate for more trips,” said Bioff, noting that the current three trips a month is not adequate to serve the island. “It’s going to involve a negotiation with DOT and the State of Alaska will also be involved in that process.”
The process of adding Diomede to the EAS statute required attention from Alaska’s congressional delegation and others as well. “This has been a multi-pronged effort,” said Matt Shuckerow, Deputy Communications Director for Senator Dan Sullivan’s office in Washington. “This was a change that had to be made in Congress. Senator Sullivan is a member of the Commerce Committee in which this aviation issue exists and he worked along with Kawerak and a lot of our other partners as well as Congressman Young in the House who is also on the House Transportation Committee that has jurisdiction to include language to specifically include Little Diomede into the Essential Air Service program.”
“Frankly, it has been difficult to do,” said Shuckerow. “A lot of people in Congress view it as an earmark, an Alaska specific language change and something that Congress has gone away from is specific language that impacts just one area or one district.”
Bioff and Shuckerow both credited the cooperative work of Senators Sullivan and Murkowski, Congressman Don Young, Alaska Senator Donny Olson and Representative Neal Foster and Governor Walker.
For Diomede this is a big win.