Slim hope seen for Alaska-Russia travel link

Posted: Wednesday, October 02, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Oil, natural gas, timber and diamonds -- the Russian Far East has it all. But what the resource-rich region no longer has is a direct travel link to Alaska.

And it doesn't appear airline service from Alaska to the Russian Far East will take off any time soon, according to officials attending a recent Anchorage meeting of the U.S. West Coast-Russian Far East Ad Hoc Working Group.

There have been flickers of hope for Russian Far East-Alaska service over the last year. But for the most part, airlines now are taking a wait-and-see approach, said Jeff Berliner, trade specialist with the state's International Trade and Market Development office, which has worked hard to re-establish Alaska as a Russian gateway.

''Everybody is waiting for someone else to go first,'' Berliner said at the Sept. 17-19 meeting. ''Sooner or later, somebody is going to do it.''

Since Reeve Aleutian Airways folded shortly before Christmas in 2000, freight forwarders and executives have been forced to use a long and expensive route through Asia, a flight that sometimes takes several days because of layovers.

Before Reeve ceased operations, Alaska Airlines and Russia's Aeroflot had offered service from Anchorage to Magadan, Kha-barovsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Vladivostok. Alaska stopped its service in 1998 and Aeroflot did the same a year later.

A Reeve flight to the Russian Far East from Anchorage used to take about seven to eight hours and cost less than $1,000. It costs several times that now for a one-way journey that can take two to three days to complete, usually with a lengthy layover in South Korea.

Promising oil fields on Sakhalin Island have yet to attract the number of passengers needed for an airline to make the flight profitable, said Yoshi Ogawa, president of ITC Travel Inc. in Anchorage.

''It's the same situation -- if airlines thought they could make money, they would,'' Ogawa said. ''Everyone is waiting for someone else to be the first.''

Meanwhile, Ogawa said, it's likely that oil companies in the United States will charter their own airplanes to the Russian Far East, much like the companies do at Prudhoe Bay.

That type of arrangement would hurt Ogawa's company, which specializes in booking people from Alaska to the Russian Far East.

Several airlines have studied the possibility of offering a direct link to the Russian Far East from Alaska since Reeve's departure.

Hopes of a Russian Far East-Alaska link were dashed this summer after Evergreen International Airlines Inc. had a federal subsidy pulled that the airline said would have allowed it to provide the service.

Evergreen last year was awarded a federal contract to provide jet service to Adak. The $1.5 million annual subsidy would have allowed the airline to underwrite service to the Russian Far East, company officials said at the time.

But the airline didn't get a jet aircraft for the Adak flight, blaming new mail-hauling rules in Alaska and new regulations on combination cargo and passenger airplanes following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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