PenAir chief pledges commitment, better service to Bristol Bay at Wednesday meeting

Apr 6, 2017

Facing a roomful of frustrated customers, Danny Seybert says airline waiting on fifth Saab 2000 to come into service as a spare, which should alleviate some of the many mechanical delays. "I made a $27 million investment into aviation in Bristol Bay and the Aleutians. I have a commitment to aviation and I have a commitment to this community," he said.

PenAir CEO Danny Seybert spoke and took questions for about an hour Wednesday. He admitted the reliability this winter has been the "worst it's ever been," but pledged improvements when additional Saab added to the fleet.
Credit KDLG

PenAir chief Danny Seybert and some of his staff held a public meeting in Dillingham Wednesday. More than fifty people packed the council chambers to hear from Seybert about why the region’s only air link to Anchorage has not been reliable this winter.

Audio Transcript: “There’s always so many rumors about airline service, what’s going on, why do you fly this route, why do you charge this much, and why didn’t my bag make it," Danny Seybert said in some opening remarks in Dillingham Wednesday. He was facing a large crowd of customers who have been increasingly frustrated by the airline he heads, PenAir.

“I grew up in Pilot Point. I am a BBNC shareholder, and I went to school in Naknek. So my whole career I’ve flown out here. Of course my dad started the airline, and his first commercial flight was from Pilot Point to Dillingham in 1955," he said of he and dad Orin Seybert's roots.

PenAir CEO Danny Seybert speaking with DeeDee Bennis after the meeting let out Wednesday.
Credit KDLG

Beginning last spring PenAir began the rollout of its new Saab 2000s, a larger faster plane purchased from Europe.

"The reason I chose this airplane is because of Dutch Harbor," he said.  "We have a 3900-foot runway, and the missed approach point is six miles from the end of the runway on the other side of a mountain. It’s about 800 nautical miles out there, and Cold Bay is our alternate which is another 200 miles back. So you’ve got to have an airplane that carries a thousand miles’ worth of fuel that can land on a 3900-foot runway, and get there in a reasonable amount of time.”

Seybert bought five of the Saab 2000s to service Bristol Bay and the Aleutian Island routes, but so far has only put four into use. That’s down from the ten smaller Saab 340s used previously. This change has led to to flight delays and cancelations that few travelers if any have been able to avoid.

“I know we’ve had some problems this winter. Our scheduled reliability this winter has been the worst it’s ever been," Seybert acknowledged. "One of the bad things about this airplane is they only made 62 of them, and there’s not a lot of parts out there. When we got into the overhaul of the fifth airplane, it was way more than we thought it was going to be, so that airplane got delayed by six months.”

Seybert says that fifth Saab was to be the spare to fill in on the routes when there are problems. His fleet of smaller Saabs had already been committed to routes Seybert picked up in Portland and Denver.

“Those were with government contracts, so once I bid them I had to fly them. So I had to move my smaller ones out, and I’ve been painfully waiting for my fifth airplane to show up so I have a spare. That’s really why we’ve had bad service this winter.”

He also said state budget cuts have meant DOT personnel now cannot work overtime to keep airports like Dillingham’s open for flights delayed late into the evening. Seybert said he is requesting permission to have the state train a PenAir employee who could work late to run fire and runway services at the airport.

Kim Williams asked Seybert about why there is no competition in the Bristol Bay to Anchorage market, and whether Seybert was blocking that from happening.
Credit KDLG

He took questions for about an hour as many aired their grievances on how the high ticket price and poor reliability have affected their lives and businesses.

Kim Williams stood to say the region needs more competition to help guarantee better service.

“I don’t want you to stop us from asking Alaska Airlines to get us another company to come in and compete with you,” she said to some applause.

Seybert said there used to be four carriers who offered the service to Anchorage, and that he would welcome any of them back into the market, adding that companies are legally bound not to block that from happening.

"Anytime I’ve ever competed with anyone, whether it’s a Ravn or Yute or Reeve Aleutian, I’ve always felt that we had a better product than they did and they made me look better. When I’m the only one in town, I’m going to always look bad,” he said to some laughs.

Several asked about baggage, which Seybert said is one of the most persistent problems PenAir deals with. He said the average US or European flier, who these planes were designed for, takes 30 pounds onboard. By comparison, the average PenAir customer takes 100 pounds each flight. The company took nine seats out of the Saabs to accommodate the difference.

"This airplane in Europe is a 54 passenger airplane. We have it in a 45 seat configuration, because we thought most of the time we could carry 45 people and their bags. Most of the time, we can. But we still run into baggage issues, so I’m still not sure how we’re going to fix that.”

Seybert said the baggage fee increases are to encourage passengers to ship through the Post Office or cargo carriers. One person asked for a cargo shipping option at the counter in Anchorage, which the company said it would look into.

Several spoke of how mechanical delays had turned into weather delays and how costly spending several days stranded in Anchorage or elsewhere has been. One person asked to have change fees waived if a trip has been interrupted by mechanical delay.

"That’s a great idea, we’ll do that," Seybert said. "If we have a mechanical and we cause you to miss your departure, we’ll let you pick the flights you want to go on.”

Seybert reiterated his oft-cited claim that he is unfortunately the “biggest drug runner in the state of Alaska", as most suspect much of the meth and heroin trafficked into Southwest communities is brought by onboard PenAir flights. The company is still looking at options to use a drug-sniffing dog at the Anchorage terminal.  

He also addressed what he said are "common rumors" that PenAir is moving out of the region or has forgotten its roots as it expands into the lower 48.

"The five airplanes I bought, I made a $27 million investment into aviation in Bristol Bay and the Aleutians. That’s a commitment, this is not some big company’s money. This is me and my dad that came from Bristol Bay, so I’m here to stay. I have a commitment to aviation and I have a commitment to this community.”

Left unaddressed Wednesday was price: after some winter deals expired, round trip tickets from Dillingham or King Salmon to Anchorage are back up around $600. That’s nearly double what Ravn charges for round trip fare between Anchorage and Bethel or Unalakleet.

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