FAIRBANKS (AP) -- This year's disastrous salmon returns are turning out to be a windfall for some small commuter airlines serving villages on the Yukon, Koyukuk and Tanana rivers.
A number of Fairbanks-based air carriers are donating their time and resources to fly donated dog food and fish to mushers impacted by this year's record-low salmon returns. But they're also turning a buck by way of postage costs.
''It's worth our time to give our time,'' said Bob Hajdukovich, president of Frontier Flying Service Inc., one of eight Fairbanks carriers involved in shipping the food. ''It's a huge injection of cash into the airlines.''
The donated food is classified as mail, and air carriers get paid a rate per pound to move mail to Bush villages. The rate fluctuates from 40-cents to $1 a pound, depending upon the distance traveled.
In the case of the donated dog food, which is expected to surpass 200,000 pounds, the U.S. Postal Service agreed to let the food be shipped as bypass mail, which normally is reserved for businesses registered with the Post Office.
Bypass mail is cheaper than regular mail because the Post Office is not involved in the shipping. Without the bypass mail exemption, villagers wouldn't be able to afford to use air carriers and the carriers would have to limit their service to those villages.
''Without the (bypass) mail subsidy, villages wouldn't be seeing anything near the level of service they're seeing,'' said Mike Morgan, chief pilot for Warbelow's Air Ventures Inc. and a member of the Alaska Air Carriers Association board of directors.
Warbelow's organized the massive shipment of food to the Bush because it was the only carrier in Fairbanks with a bypass mail shipping permit, Morgan said. Warbelow's runs the food through its postage permit and coordinates with the Postal Service to determine which carrier gets how much mail to ship.
''It's a major operation,'' Morgan told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''We've already shipped 130,000 pounds or it's at least in the system to be shipped. I know I've got 60,000- to 80,000 more pounds coming.''
Subsistence salmon fishing was shut down along the entire Yukon watershed for the first time this year when salmon runs collapsed. That prompted Gov. Tony Knowles to declare a disaster.
Mushers in some villages were quoted as saying they would have to shoot their sled dogs because of the lack of fall-run chum salmon, which serves as their winter food supply.
Thousands of pounds of dog food and fish have been donated for distribution to mushers. But that food is of no use unless it gets to where it's needed, which are dozens of remote villages accessible only by airplane this time of year.
The Tanana Chiefs Conference is paying the postage for the mailed dog food. That's estimated to run as much as $25,000.
Postage on a 50-pound bag of dog food is $6- to $7, Morgan said. The Tanana Chiefs also is renting refrigerator vans for storing fish.
Along with Warbelow's and Frontier Flying, the other carriers involved in shipping the donated food to the Bush are Arctic Circle Air, Belair, Larry's Flying Service, Servant Air, Tanana Air, Tanana Flying Service, Tatonduk Flying Service and Wright's Air Service.
All eight carriers will share equally in the distribution of the donated food, Morgan said.
The sudden influx of poundage will help make up for what Frontier's Hajdukovich called ''an absolutely miserable year for air carriers'' because of higher insurance costs and soaring fuel prices.
''Last year we were paying 45-cents a gallon and today I'm paying $1.38 a gallon,'' Hajdukovich said. ''That's $800,000 to Frontier.''
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