Another high-traffic summer for passenger airlines at Kenai Municipal Airport has kept both players in the local market satisfied despite a substantial hike in fuel prices.
While Era Aviation restructured its flight schedule and added a larger aircraft to its Kenai-Anchorage run this summer, newcomer TransNorthern Aviation has added larger aircraft as well as additional flights since entering the local market in December.
"This has really been a positive thing for us so far," TransNorthern owner Andrea Larson said Friday. "We're thinking about bringing more planes on line."
TransNorthern quickly filled the void left by Yute Air's departure last winter, bringing in a seven-passenger Piper Navajo and the hope of creating a sustainable operation in the Kenai-Anchorage market, an Era mainstay for 16 years.
After initially offering eight flights a day, TransNorthern increased that total to 11 in March and now features two twin-engine Beechcraft 99s, a nine-passenger aircraft. Larson said the staff also has grown from seven to to 15, which include Anchorage-based pilots considered part of the Kenai operation.
"Right now our planes are still 70 to 80 percent full and things haven't started to slack off yet," Larson said, adding that scaling back for winter operations was a wait-and-see prospect.
"We're going to keep a really close eye on that," Larson said. "Planes break down more and passenger loads decrease in the winter. We'll see."
While other airlines have come and gone as a second carrier over the years, Larson said, entering the Kenai market was a well-researched decision.
"We knew there was a need for competition," Larson said. "Yute was doing OK; they had other problems. It was tough for us at first. It takes a while for people to trust an airline."
She added that word-of-mouth advertising has become a benefit.
"Now, people are getting to know us," Larson said. "We're trying to accommodate the Kenai passengers, and we're also very competitive. We want to take care of people."
Next door at Era, passenger numbers for the peak summer season were slightly ahead of last year despite what an airline official said were the highest fuel prices he had seen in 16 years.
Paul Landis, Era's fixed-wing division vice president, said fuel prices spiked in March, receded slightly and remained high throughout the summer.
"That's been a challenge for us this summer," Landis said. "Fuel is costing us two and a half times more than last year."
And higher fuel prices for the airlines have translated to higher fares for passengers.
"In late February we added a surcharge of $1 per leg collected above and beyond the fare," Landis said. "And 10 days ago it was upped to $3. Fuel prices have remained high."
Larson said fuel for her operation has gone up 15 cents in two weeks. TransNorthern has increas-ed fares by a dollar, Larson said.
Era scaled back its number of daily flights this year but added a larger plane Aug. 1, a third 37-passenger de Havilland Dash 8, said Era station manager Judy Erikson.
"It's been a good summer," Erikson said. "We've gone to 16 to 18 flights per day, but we are flying the bigger aircraft. Adding the Dash 8 has been a big help. We haven't had to bump bags as much as we had to with the (smaller) Twin Otter."
Airport manager Rebecca Cronkhite said with the increased traffic the airport has seen this year -- especially during the summer -- passengers have appreciated having an option.
"There have been times when an Era flight was booked and TransNorthern was able to accommodate the passenger and vice-versa," Cronkhite said. "For passengers, it is nice to have a second option. People like having choices."
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