Terrorist attacks, the war and new computer systems are conspiring to effect a lot of changes at Anchorage-based Era Aviation.
Mike LeNorman, director of sales and marketing for the company's fixed-wing division, detailed some of those changes before the Kenai Chamber of Commerce weekly luncheon audience Wednesday.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 created immediate changes within the aviation community, shutting it down for days. At Era, LeNorman said, there was a danger the company would have to shut down completely for weeks while installing new security equipment at all of its stations, including such remote areas as Iliamna and the villages surrounding Bethel.
"Our agent out there is a guy on a four-wheeler with a clipboard," LeNorman said. "Can you imagine putting a million-dollar magnetometer in Iliamna with three flights a week?"
The magnetometers, or metal detectors, and carry-on X-ray machines have been required for all aircraft that carry 61 or more passengers. For those that carry between 31 and 60, slightly less stringent rules are in place. For planes that carry 30 or fewer, such as Era's de Havilland Twin Otters, there is no security screening required.
He said walk-through metal detectors will be going up at Era gates in its larger airports next month.
LeNorman said the division's vice president, Paul Landis, is in Washington, D.C., seeking federal assistance to pay for increased federal security requirements.
Since the attacks, instead of metal detectors and X-ray machines, LeNorman said Era worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with alternative security measures. That's why people are now selected at random for screening with a metal detecting hand wand and carry-on luggage examinations.
The limits on carry-on luggage have generated all manner of calls to LeNorman.
"If I had a dollar for every call I got, I'd probably be someplace sunny and warm right now," he said. "The FAA has told us to limit carry-ons. Purses, briefcases and laptop computers are OK.
"But if someone has a small backpack they like to call a briefcase, it has to be checked."
Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said he didn't really mind the regulations so much, but he wants Era to have consistent rules at all its terminals.
LeNorman said there also have been problems when passengers get off one airline that has more lenient carry-on rules than Era.
"They don't understand why they can carry something on Alaska (Airlines) and not on Era," he said.
He pointed out that the company is using off-duty pilots to do much if its screening. It's a decision that does not sit well with some of them, however.
"They are paid to sit by the phone in case we need them, and we're saying if we're paying them, we can use them at check-in," LeNorman said. "We're asking them to help, and some are saying they're glad to help in any way they can."
He said the company is getting a half-dozen resumes a week from pilots laid off from major airlines, some of them with 20,000 hours of flight time, while some of the Era pilots complaining have only 500 hours.
"Our message to our crew members is that we appreciate what they are doing," he said.
Era's relationship with Alaska Airlines also is changing. Beginning in May, the company installed its own computerized reservation system and entered into a full "code-share" relationship with Alaska. Before, Era had a commuter relationship.
The difference means that, under the new system, Era can offer e-tickets, can provide passenger boarding passes through to their destinations and have automated baggage tags, which are required by other airlines, such as Northwest.
The new system also replaces the company's manual-entry accounting system.
"We felt we had to come into the 1980s," LeNorman joked.
The company carries 453,000 passengers a year, LeNorman said, and as soon as the learning curve is surmounted, the system will be much smoother, with delays at ticket counters much less prevalent. The company also will introduce kiosk check-in.
"With kiosk check-in, there's no sense in standing in line. You show up, show your ID, and off you go," he said.
Era also is putting in a system compatible with that used by many travel agents, allowing passengers to get an e-ticket from an agent.
There were questions about whether Era's changing relationship with Alaska Airlines means a split between the two longtime companions, like the one between Alaska and Mark Air in the mid-1990s.
"Our relationship with Alaska Airlines is as strong as it's ever been in the 18 years we've worked with them," LeNorman said.
It was pointed out that Mark Air's owner said the same thing before it and Alaska Airlines had a falling-out.
"What can I say? Trust me," LeNorman said.
He conceded that having its own computer reservation system separate from Alaska's will allow Era to expand if it ever wants to. The company is working on a deal with Northwest Airlines on a code-share program in the future.
Era will still participate in the Alaska Airlines mileage plan.
Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Kathy Tarr asked LeNorman what he's heard regarding projections for the 2002 tourist season.
"Our sources tell us it will be even bleaker than this last year," he said.
However, he said he's heard bookings for fishing and hunting lodges are strong.
Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, asked if there are any cost increases involved in the new, more stringent regulations, and if those would be passed on to passengers.
"Traffic is down, and the last thing we want to do is drive it down further by raising prices," LeNorman said.
He said there probably will be reduced fare specials in the new year. He added that while there are no other airlines flying the Kenai-Anchorage route, Era does have competition: the highway.
"And we don't want to price ourselves out of the market."
The speaker at next week's chamber luncheon will be former Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer, candidate for lieutenant governor. Lunch is at noon at Old Town Village Restaurant. The public is invited to attend.
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