Come Saturday, Wings of Alaska will be operating under new ownership.
SeaPort Airlines, the Portland-based commuter airline that currently owns of Wings of Alaska, has sold the company to Fjord Flying Services, an air charter company based out of Gustavus.
To the outside observer, the change in ownership will hardly be noticeable. Wings of Alaska will continue to operate out of its current locations under its current name. But regular customers of Wings will likely notice the business’ new “local focus,” according to Fjord owner Richard Cole.
“One of the main differences is that most of the regular Wings customers have my phone number,” he said with a quick laugh and a smile. “My grand ambition is not to run a national airline; it’s to run this airline the way it should be.”
And the way it should be run, in Cole’s view, means putting the needs of Southeast Alaska communities first, something he said SeaPort management sometimes struggled with. SeaPort’s primary concentration is on the continental U.S., which is where the company is headquartered, but this limited the company’s ability to connect with and meet the needs of Southeast communities, said Cole, who worked as an employee for Wings of Alaska for three years before buying Fjord in 2014. “This is just a very different environment in which to do business.”
In communities that lack highways — and sometimes even the Internet — to connect them, airlines such as Wings of Alaska are vitally important, Cole said. They can’t be run with the typical airline mentality that dominates business in the Lower 48, which is where SeaPort ran into problems. According to Cole, the company handled scheduling as most bigger airlines do; its rates varied depending on seats and dates, which doesn’t work in Southeast Alaska.
“We’re more of a taxi service than an airline,” said Carly Casipit, Fjord’s flight operation manager. Cole agreed. In the absence of highways, Cole said airlines in Southeast have to act as “living and breathing infrastructure.”
In a press release, Robert McKinney, the CEO and president of SeaPort, echoed this.
“Air service to rural Alaska communities has many unique challenges and aspects to it that contrast significantly with our Lower 48 operations,” McKinney said. “We believe that a company, such as Fjord Flying Service, that exclusively serves Southeast Alaska will be able to better meet the needs of the communities and customers.”
With the sale, so too goes SeaPort’s presence in Southeast Alaska. In the press release, SeaPort also said that will provide employees with “an opportunity to apply for openings in SeaPort’s Lower 48 operations.”
The company currently employs between 45 and 50 employees in the summer and 35 and 40 employees in the winter, Cole said. And he will look to keep some of them on.
“The takeover is happening as we head into winter hours,” Cole said explaining what the change in ownership means for Wings of Alaska staff members. “There will be some reduction in staff but, in theory, it should be no less than the normal attrition at this point in the year.”
Fjord acquired all of Wings of Alaska’s ground assets, which include the terminals in Hoonah, Haines and Gustavus and “essentially anything else that isn’t bolted down or too heavy for SeaPort to take with them,” Cole said.
This doesn’t, however, include the five aircraft in operation by Wings of Alaska. They are all leased. Fjord owns four planes that, combined, seat about 20 people, but it will be soon add five planes to its roster to cover the operations of Wings of Alaska. Whether these five planes are the ones currently on lease is yet to be decided, Cole said, but by mid winter he hopes to have at least matched the current seating capacity of Wings of Alaska, which is about 33 people.
In the near future Wings of Alaska will serve primarily for commuter services and Fjord will handle the business’ charter needs, Cole said.
The sale, which was finalized on Oct. 10, was initiated before a Wings of Alaska plane crashed in July, killing the pilot and injuring four passengers.
“I had introduced the conversation to Rob (McKinney) months before that, and it was a very real conversation weeks prior to that,” Cole said.