PenAir works to integrate Saab 2000s

Mar 16, 2017

Peninsula Airways is facing criticism from Bristol Bay customers due to continued delays along the Anchorage route. The company says it is still in the process of integrating their new fleet of Saab 2000s. 

Pen Air has introduced a new series of Saab 2000s into their fleet. They are the first airline to use these craft on commercial routes.
Credit Chrissy Roes

Outside of the summer months, many of Bristol Bay's residents rely on just one carrier to get them back and forth to Anchorage: PenAir. Lately, the number of delayed and canceled flights have irked even the most understanding PenAir customers, many of whom are questioning the company's loyalty, pricing, and competency. But as KDLG's Lawrence Hamilton reports, PenAir says the recent problems are part of growing pains for moving up to the bigger, faster Saab 2000 aircraft a year ago.

Audio Transcript: Mechanical delays are attributed to integrating the company's new Saab 2000s, said sales and marketing vice president Melissa Roberts.

"We brought our first on in April and our second in June," said Roberts.  "They are just getting inundated into the system, and getting climatized."

Those Saabs are bigger and faster than their predecessors, but the integration has not gone as smoothly as the company hoped. Roberts said they are having similar challenges today as they encountered when the company brought on the Saab 340s just over a decade ago.

"Those aircraft need to be climatized to the moisture content, the elevation, the cold, the warm, and the hot," she said.

So far this year PenAir has an 88 percent completion rate along its Dillingham to Anchorage route. By comparison the completion rate in 2015 was 97 percent, and 96 percent in 2016.  

"We feel this is low," Roberts says. "We aim for 100 percent, but 96 percent is our target and we don't like to be below 96."

Just 4.9 percent of the delayed flights were caused by controllable factors like mechanical issues, according to PenAir. That is slightly higher than the 4.7 percent recorded in 2015, but down from 6.6 percent in 2016 when the Saab 2000s were first brought in. Most flight delays are caused by uncontrollable factors such as weather and problems at airports, said Roberts.

PenAir's newly added turboprops were previously used by NASCAR teams. Roberts said PenAir is the first airline to register the 2000 aircraft for commercial flights, adding that there has been, and continues to be, a learning curve as they are moved into commercial use.

"Each plane has its own personality," Roberts says. 

A longstanding criticism leveled at Bristol Bay's primary air carrier is the price of tickets between Anchorage and the Dillingham or King Salmon hubs. Round trip fares can price as high as $600, often double what a passenger would pay for round trip fare from Anchorage to Unalakleet on Ravn.

Roberts flatly denies that PenAir overcharges Bristol Bay customers to finance its expansion elsewhere or subsidize other, more competitive routes, which some have suggested.

"Absolutely not, that is the farthest thing from our mind. We spent $27 million in 2016 investing in new aircraft, which means the Saab 2000. All those 2000s are for the state of Alaska, not the lower 48. So all of our investment came for the state of Alaska," she says. 

PenAir is aware of and understands the frustration coming from Bristol Bay customers. Roberts says the airline values its relationship to customers in the region and its unique role in Bristol Bay, and is working hard to improve the reliability of its service.

Contact the author at lawrence@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281