Grounded squadron waiting for buyers
More than five years after L.A.B. Flying Service closed its doors, much of the airline’s fleet sits along runways in Haines and Juneau, waiting for buyers.
In Juneau, about eight of the distinctive, red-tailed planes are parked near a large L.A.B. hangar at the north end of the terminal. In Haines, a dozen planes are lined up in neat rows near the taxiway, like a squadron frozen in time.
“They’re sort of like a little piece of history out here,” said Teresa Albecker, a customer service agent for Wings of Alaska who once worked for L.A.B. People ask about them constantly, Albecker said. “They say: What are they going to do with them? Are there more of them? Are they just going to let them sit out here?”
For now, it appears they’ll keep sitting. In interviews this week, sons of airline founder Layton A. Bennett said the national recession and high aviation fuel prices are making it difficult to sell the planes, many of them six-seat Piper Cherokees that were once the workhorses of commuter aviation here. L.A.B. shut down in July 2008.
Wings of Alaska and Alaska Seaplanes, competing airlines that have largely absorbed smaller, family-run operations like L.A.B., are increasingly using larger, more comfortable planes to ferry mail and passengers in northern Southeast.
“We’ve been marketing these planes as the market opens up, but it’s very bleak out there. There are thousands of planes for sale. That’s been a real obstacle to our sales program,” said retired commercial jet pilot Eric Bennett, in a phone interview from his home near Seattle.
Layton Bennett, 94, lives nearby. He’s “ornery as ever” but won’t be returning to Alaska due to health reasons, his son said.
Eric Bennett said the company has sold three craft – one Piper Cherokee Six and two nine-seat Britten-Norman Islanders – since L.A.B. closed. That leaves about two dozen single- and twin-engine planes in Juneau and Haines. Most were built in the 1970s and 1980s and are worth between $40,000 and $200,000 each, depending on the number of hours left on their engines, he said.
“Any of our planes would be ready to go with a little bit of work, if we had a potential buyer,” Bennett said. The market for aircraft softened around 2001, dropped again with the national recession of 2007 and has been “very slow” for the past year, he said.
Layton Bennett’s flying skills were legendary; he helped establish wheeled planes as a competitive transportation alternative in an era when floatplanes dominated aviation here, Bennett and brother Lynn Bennett said this week.
Haines-based L.A.B. operated for 52 years and at one time served 10 Southeast communities. It was shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration for violating federal regulations and for not correcting maintenance problems. The company’s heyday came in the mid-1990s, when it grew to 42 planes and about as many pilots, running tours and shuttles off cruise ships.
Twelve of the planes were operating at the time of the shutdown, said Eric Bennett. He said the company is keeping its hangars in Haines and Juneau to provide shop space for the planes to be restored to service. (The Bennetts pay the state $2,800 per year to lease hangar sites in Haines. There’s no storage fee for the parked planes here, as the State of Alaska doesn’t charge tie-down fees at its small, rural airports.)
Juneau-based Doug Solberg, a 40-year-commercial pilot for commuter airlines in Alaska, also works as an airplane appraiser.
Solberg said planes lose value every day they sit, unused. Their ignition systems and magnetos deteriorate with time. Internally, the engines rust. L.A.B.’s planes are probably worth one-third to one-half of the value of comparable, operating planes advertised on aircraft websites, he said.
“You have to remember, those planes were not in good health. To add to it, they haven’t been used for two or three years, so they’re deteriorating every day… The market’s down, but with the condition they’re in, it’s really down,” Solberg said. “I’m surprised they didn’t try to move more of them after the big shutdown.”
Solberg said one approach would be to get a “ferrying” permit from the FAA to fly the planes to the southern United States – where aviation labor is inexpensive and hangars don’t need to be heated – and rebuild them there for resale.
Some of the L.A.B. planes are equipped with Capstone avionics equipment, federally funded, enhanced-GPS systems that were installed in the late 1990s and were worth about $70,000 per plane. But the Capstone gear required regular updates and has since been replaced by less expensive technology. The value of the units today is probably around $10,000 or $20,000 each, Solberg said.
On the upside, the Cherokee 6 is a good plane that is “very viable” for commercial operation, in part because most of the parts can be replaced, Solberg said. In commercial aviation, there are limits placed on hours or months of service for airplane parts. Unlike other makes, there are few “time-life” limits on the Cherokee 6 model, he said. “They still could be lucrative to the right buyer. They’re not dinosaurs, that’s for sure,” he said, and could be comparatively cheaper than buying a comparable plane, a Cessna 206, new for $500,000.
Selling the planes for private use might be difficult though, since they cost about $90 an hour in fuel and oil to fly, due in part to increases in the cost of aviation gas. Another factor is that the recession hurt the commercial charter market. For the cost of chartering a plane and flying into a remote location, people can jet off to warmer climes, he said.
It’s not surprising that Wings of Alaska and Alaska Seaplanes are now using nine-seat Cessna Caravans and Piper Navajos for many flights, Solberg said. “If you’ve got a choice of having your own seat by the window or sitting side by side with another person (in a smaller plane), which are you going to choose? That was just one-upsmanship.”