Whitehorse is the new Juneau for many air travelers this winter season. While Haines residents have traditionally booked trips to Juneau on the Alaska Marine Highway in order to catch flights to the Lower 48, canceled Matanuska sailings have caused some residents to consider Whitehorse as a more reliable means of getting to their destinations.

Katie Wendel said she prefers to buy local and support Alaskan businesses, so making the journey from Haines to Juneau and flying on Alaska Airlines was always her preference. However, on Friday, Feb. 7, she and her husband drove to Whitehorse to catch a flight to Portland that will route them through Vancouver. 

“It’s just too iffy now to (fly out of Juneau),” she said, citing the Matanuska’s breakdown and this winter’s curtailed sailing schedule. Her husband, Dr. Tom Wendel, is on call at the Haines clinic when he returns, so their ability to get back on time is important, she said.

While flying to Juneau is an alternative to the ferry, flights are subject to weather, making them particularly unreliable in the winter. Between Jan. 18, the last Matanuska sailing, and Feb. 8, weather grounded Alaska Seaplanes flights for a total of eight days, general manager Carl Ramseth said.

This is not the first time Wendel has routed family through Whitehorse. In December, ferry sailings had been reduced to a point where she could not find a sailing that would get her boys home for Christmas in a timely manner, she said. Picking them up in Whitehorse was “more of a sure thing.” 

“For people who are visiting, they have a schedule for work. They can’t wait for a ferry,” she said. She sent them home on a convenient ferry sailing, but it took seven hours because the ferry went to Skagway first. It would have been quicker to drive the four and a half hours to Whitehorse, Wendel said.

Wendel said she needs to go to Texas in April and doesn’t have flexibility in scheduling, so she’s leaning toward another Whitehorse trip to get there.

“I hate to steer people away from buying local,” she said. “If you have the time, go with the ferry, but if you have a fixed schedule, the surest way to do it is through Whitehorse.” Although, she noted that Chilkat Pass has been closed several times this winter due to heavy snow. 

Shelly Sloper, who works for a company based in Southern California that assesses the efficiency of nonprofit programs, said she had decent luck getting out of Haines on her latest work trip, but ran into issues on the return. She had been scheduled to fly back Feb. 1 and jump on the ferry the following day. Then she heard her sailing had been canceled. “At that time, they only pushed it back a week,” she said, so she decided to stay in California and continue to work until she could get on the Feb. 8 Matanuska sailing. 

“I had to change my flights on Alaska Airlines. They didn’t charge me a change fee, but the difference in ticket price was $300,” Sloper said. “Now that plan has already changed because they canceled the (Feb. 8) ferry.” Sloper said she realized she had some friends who were traveling to Whitehorse that same weekend, so she decided to change tickets again. 

“I realized I didn’t have my passport,” she said. She had to come up with a way to get it in two days. Luckily, a family friend was traveling from Haines to Seattle on the same day, and she arranged a handoff before boarding her flight to Canada.

“I don’t usually fly on small planes for personal reasons,” Sloper said. Having the ferry break down has been particularly challenging “because I work remotely and need to travel to California every couple of months for work.”

“I don’t want to give up my job,” Sloper said. But the lack of reliable travel has made it difficult to show up to required meetings, she said.

“It’s making me think that I might have to move if I can’t rely on the ferry,” said Sloper, who grew up in Haines and moved back after graduate school to be near her family. She hopes the ferry situation will improve, she said. But “without reliable service, I don’t see myself living in Haines long-term.”

In addition to the appeal of increased reliability, routing through Whitehorse could also have a cost advantage, depending on the difference in price between a ticket from Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport and a ticket from Juneau.

Those without friends or family willing to collect them in Whitehorse have the option of driving and leaving a car in long-term parking at the Whitehorse airport. The cost is $5 a day, according to the Yukon government’s website, roughly $3.75 in U.S. currency. Cars can remain in long-term parking for up to 30 days. For a two-week trip, a traveler is looking at $52.50 in parking plus roughly $100 in gas—$152.50 round-trip. Alaska Seaplanes tickets to Juneau start at $134 one way.

For Sunday, March 1, the cost of a four-and-a-half-hour flight to Seattle from Whitehorse, including an hour layover in Vancouver, was $148. The cost of a two-and-a-half-hour direct flight on Alaska Airlines from Juneau to Seattle ranges from $139 to $289 for dates in early March.