Excursion Inlet viewed from the air. (Courtesy L'Aquatique, wikimedia commons)
Excursion Inlet viewed from the air. (Courtesy L’Aquatique, Wikimedia commons)

It’s a somewhat convoluted process for the 12 year-round residents of Excursion Inlet to get their mail. 

Right now, the mail comes in through Juneau’s post office which holds it until delivery day. Then it’s picked up and flown to the community where Kristen Zarlengo grabs it from the pilot, then sorts it into stacks of packages and first class mail in a makeshift mailroom. 

Because residents are so spread out, Zarlengo said that means they sometimes don’t see each other until the Ward Air plane lands. 

“A lot of us meet the mail plane,” she said. 

In the winter, Zarlengo said they get mail once a week and in the summer,  three times a week. 

But for much of late June it seemed like that process might be upended because of a payment dispute between the U.S. Postal Service and Ward Air, which brings supplies and mail to the remote, unincorporated community in the southern Haines Borough. 

Ward Air’s Tom Williams did not want to give an on-record interview for this story, but did agree to confirm some of the facts. 

At issue is that Ward Air has an Essential Air Service contract – a program that ensures that rural communities get equitable access to air service. But, that service does not include a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver the mail. 

“So, since [Ward Air] started doing our mail a year ago – they have never been paid by the postal service,” Zarlengo said.

It’s not immediately clear what the exact hold-up was; a Kristina Uppal, a USPS spokesperson would not provide details about the issue or the hangup to getting the airline paid writing in an email that they do not provide details for their contractual agreements. She also did not confirm whether USPS now has a contract with Ward Air.

But the issue came to a head in June when the company decided that it would stop delivering mail on July 1 without that payment. 

“So what happened is Tom Williams – who we love – said he can’t do it anymore,” Zarlengo said. “He apologized and we’re like ‘Heck no, we’re in your corner. This is ridiculous. Ward Air is wonderful but you know they have costs too.’”

This is not the first hiccup the community has had with its mail delivery in the last few years. When the community switched air carriers from Alaska Seaplanes to Ward Air, Zarlengo said the Mendenhall post office in Juneau would not release their mail to the new carrier. 

“For like, three weeks, the post office was just holding all of our mail,” she said. “I went in and they couldn’t open the strapped box.” 

It was frustrating for some and urgent for others. 

“There was a resident here and she had four PFD checks in the mail and she really needed them and they would not release the box,” Zarlengo said. “She camped out in the post office for two days and they would not give her the checks.” 

Haines borough manager Annette Kreitzer said that the need for reliable access to postal mail is also what prompted her to jump in when Zarlengo called her to say they could be losing access to the mail. 

“This is so important to people. You know, they need their medication,” Kreitzer said. 

So, she contacted U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office. 

“This is a federal issue, this is not something they’re going to resolve at the state level,” Kreitzer said. 

She said staff from Murkowski’s office and the postal service liaisons between Alaska and D.C. got together to try and pinpoint the problem. 

And, it sounds as though that fixed the issue. 

Williams, who stopped delivering the mail July 1, said Tuesday that he’d heard from the postal service and they’re preparing to pay him. 

“In fact, I got a call from the postal service confirming my bank account. Probably a couple of hours ago,” he said. “I expect that we’ll [be] paid here shortly.”

Williams said he called Zarlengo to let her know to spread the word that they’ll resume carrying the mail again on Wednesday.