Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Harris Air to shutdown

 

August 29, 2019



Haines will soon be down to only one airline again.

After a year and a half of service, Harris Air Services’ last flight out of Haines is scheduled to depart at 10 a.m. September 16.

“We’re calling it a suspension of flights,” said president Scott Harris. “We need to kind of sit back and take a hard look at it.”

Harris is going out with a promotion: tickets for all flights, regardless of origin or destination, cost only $100.

The Sitka-based airline is joining a number of other regional carriers who haven’t lasted.

Juneau-based Wings of Alaska folded in March 2017, citing economic reasons.

In 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down Haines-based LAB Flying Service, claiming that the Haines-based airline was in violation of eight federal airline regulations.

The year before, Skagway Air Service closed down. Declining profit margins, increasing expenses, difficulty finding mechanics, and increasing airline regulations all played a role in the decision, vice president Mike O’Daniel told the CVN at the time.

“These airlines are a labor of love and a labor of passion rather than a sound business decision,” he said.

A combination of factors is forcing the Harris Air to suspend operations, said Scott Harris. “A perfect storm is a little overused cliché, but it’s kind of become that,” he said.

First and foremost, he said, was the difficulty of finding and keeping pilots. Harris said he’s been forced to hire pilots from out of state and pay for their transportation. And many of these pilots stay only for about two years before moving on to work elsewhere.

“We’ve become more of a stepping stone,” Harris said.

Harris also anticipates a significant increase in insurance costs for the airline. Airplane accidents anywhere in Alaska cause insurance rates to rise across the state. After a spate of crashes earlier this year in Ketchikan, Harris expects a 30 percent increase in his rates, which he estimates could cost an extra $6,000 a month.

In addition, Harris said, the airline’s two nine-seater Piper Navajo Chieftains struggled to compete with larger airlines’ fleets.

“We couldn’t do four flights in a row to Haines,” Harris said.

Carl Ramseth, general manager of Alaska Seaplanes, said his airline is prepared to fill the space left by Harris Air if need be.

“We have the total fleet available to add more aircraft to flights that become full,” he said.

Ramseth agrees that the small airline business is a tough one. The ups and downs in industries like tourism, mining, and timber contribute to steep fluctuations in ridership, Ramseth said. Bad flying conditions pose a challenge to inexperienced pilots, and accidents hike insurance prices all over the state.

“I remember when there were five or six different airlines serving Haines,” Ramseth said (though not all flew at the same time). “It’s definitely a challenge to make ends meet in the airline business in Southeast Alaska.”

For now, Harris Aircraft Services will return to its roots in airline maintenance. The company operates two maintenance facilities, one in Sitka and another in Juneau. Harris said he could get back into flying someday, but first he has to figure out how to thrive as a small regional airline.

“I don’t know what else I could’ve done,” he said. “I don’t know what else I will do.”

 
 

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