The state Department of Transportation has told city officials that budget cuts may mean shorter hours for Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport.
The Sitka Airport is currently staffed 24 hours a day. DOT is considering cutting one staff member, and perhaps reducing operating hours to 18 or 20 hours a day.
Spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said DOT would still have staff on-call, in case a flights need to land after hours. He said that hopefully, under the proposal, airline passengers wouldn’t notice any change in service.
“Even if this draft plan were to go forward, it won’t affect commercial operations,” Woodrow said. “So your Alaska Airlines flights will still be able to land, as well as the Delta flights that are coming, will still be able to land as scheduled. Even unscheduled ones, say if there’s fog in Juneau and they need to land in Sitka, we’ll still be able to accommodate those flights as well.”
Woodrow said the cuts wouldn’t affect medevac flights, which don’t require staff on-hand to operate out of the airport.
For now, the cut is only a proposal. DOT won’t make any final decisions until the state operating budget passes the legislature and is signed by the governor. At that point, the department will know the scale of cuts it must absorb.
While the Sitka Airport terminal building is owned by the city, the airport itself — including the land beneath the terminal, the parking lot, and the runway — are all owned by the State of Alaska. That means the state is responsible for everything from snow removal to runway operations.
DOT currently has a staff of eleven at the airport. Eliminating one full-time position would save about $110,000 a year, Woodrow said.
“Instead of having a staff person that would have to be at the airport during those hours, even if there isn’t anything going on, that person would just be on-call,” Woodrow said. “[They] would get a phone call at home, and would be paid for the hours that they’re working.”
But an 18-hour day would cut things close. Sitka’s earliest Alaska Airlines flight leaves at 6 a.m. and its last flight lands around 11 p.m. That’s about 17 hours a day of active use, even without weather disruption.
When Governor Bill Walker addressed the Sitka Chamber of Commerce last week (Friday 4-3-15), City Administrator Mark Gorman told him that the proposed cut “is of great concern.”
“That connection to our transportation, given the pressures on the Marine Highway, would be very devastating if we lost that flight,” Gorman said. “So anything that can be done to ensure that our airport accommodates our Alaska Airlines connections would be very important to this community.”
Meanwhile, public works director Michael Harmon told KCAW that the city is hoping to develop the airport into a hub for non-passenger planes. Sitka has better year-round flying weather than Juneau — it’s almost always possible to get in and out — and the city is hoping to attract companies like FedEx or UPS.
Harmon said the city is hoping that whatever DOT decides, it doesn’t limit the airport’s ability to attract that kind of business.