“If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.” How many TSA officers have used this reply when passengers ask why each airport seems to have its own special way of providing security? This adage has a very special meaning in Alaska.
In early April, RavnAir Group, the largest regional air carrier in Alaska that provided essential air service for passengers and cargo in rural Alaska, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This grounded 72 aircraft and over 400 flights to and from more than 115 rural communities, effectively isolating much of rural Alaska from the two major hubs of Anchorage and Fairbanks. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to re-establish the aviation lifeline in these communities became critically important.
With no highway access to the mainland and more than 790 miles of open sea from Anchorage to the international seaport at Dutch Harbor, home of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, Cold Bay was completely isolated.
With the start of the Aleutian fisheries summer season just six weeks away, Alaska Airlines stepped in and announced it would launch passenger air service to Cold Bay Airport (CDB) and provide the community with the much-needed support. CDB would then become the hub for air taxi service to the region including the Aleutians, Alaska Peninsula and the Pribilof Islands.
But this was just the tip of the iceberg!
After preliminary discussions with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and Alaska Airlines to ensure minimum physical security standards could be met before the first flight, Anchorage Federal Security Director Peter Duffy said, “It will be challenging. But, if we think outside the box and work together, I am confident we can accomplish this and restore air service.”
Hearing this, Alaska Airlines then formally notified TSA it would seek authority to provide service between Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) and CDB. The state of Alaska followed with a formal request to federalize CDB, and the game was on.
As you might guess, federalizing an airport can be a monumental undertaking. All tasks require immediate action, but all must follow a specific sequence to final completion. The end of one task is the beginning of another, and nearly all tasks must be done simultaneously.
Many groups came together to get the job done. TSA headquarters; the state of Alaska; TSA Alaska Operations, Mission Support, and Compliance Teams; Alaska Airlines Project Team; Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities; CDB airport management; Aleutian East Borough community leaders; and Grant Aviation all worked together to establish air service to this isolated community. Collaboration and communications were critical and frequent.
TSA regulatory and screening staff, supported by a Coast Guard C-130 flight, visited CDB to evaluate the facilities. Duffy then approved an interim Airport Security Program for CDB, just 30 days from his initial go-ahead in early April. Four days later, the federalization plan was approved and TSA Alaska prepared to support commercial aviation screening services to CDB.
On the afternoon of May 16, the first Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 arrived in Cold Bay, restoring a vital air link to the Aleutian Islands. This connection between ANC and CDB links Aleutian fisheries and processing plants as well as adjoining fish processing operations in the neighboring towns and ensures the Aleutians once again have essential air service.