St. Paul air service threatened in Ravn purchase of PenAir
The community of St. Paul, an Alaska island in the Bering Sea that is home to roughly 450 people, is fighting to keep its regular passenger air service through the holidays.
After PenAir filed for bankruptcy, Ravn Alaska purchased the company with a winning $12.3 million bid at a bankruptcy auction, a sale that's expected to close this week.
It's unclear what will happen once the deal goes through, but community leaders in St. Paul say they're concerned about a lapse in service to the area.
In a notice on the ongoing situation, city manager Phillip Zavadil said Ravn is working to obtain an extended certification for over-water flight that would enable its Dash 8 airplane to service the area, but the certification is not scheduled to be issued until Feb. 3.
PenAir's Saab 340B which currently makes the flight is owned by Danny Seybert, formerly PenAir's CEO, who confirmed Monday that he was let go on Dec. 13. Seybert declined to speak about the future of the aircraft.
Amos Philemonoff, president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul, said Seybert and Ravn have not worked out a deal, which could leave the community without a scheduled passenger air service to and from the island.
The problem, he says, is unique to St. Paul.
"We are the only community that has so much water between us and the mainland that PenAir serves," he said, later adding, "I don't legally think that St. Paul or any community on the 1979 list of Essential Air Service communities could have a lapse in service. It's hard to believe."
Philemonoff said city and tribal leaders are in Washington D.C. and plan to meet with the Federal Department of Transportation Tuesday to request help with a solution. They're hoping the DOT will issue a "hold in order" and pay for the Saab 340B to continue it's routes until Ravn can take over, or expedite a certification for Ravn's aircraft.
"Our community is working together to do everything we can to prevent any lapse in service," said Zavadil on Monday.
In an email Monday, PenAir spokeswoman Missy Roberts could only offer assurance for services ahead of the close of sale.
"Once the asset sale of PenAir is complete it is uncertain if flights to St Paul will continue. As we receive further information we will inform our customers and the community of St. Paul," Roberts wrote.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the company sent the following statement:
“At the present time, the Bankruptcy Court–appointed Trustee is responsible for making all decisions related to PenAir operations. Last Wednesday, the Trustee and PenAir executives informed us that Mr. Danny Seybert’s employment with PenAir had been terminated.
On Thursday of last week, we were notified that Mr. Seybert was attempting to ground and repossess his Saab 340 aircraft, which is the only aircraft PenAir has with extended overwater operating capabilities needed to fly to St. Paul.
Yesterday, PenAir notified the Trustee that Mr. Seybert had directed a critical Saab 340 engine vendor to stop providing required support and safety-related engine information for the aircraft.
Based on this information, we understand that the Saab 340 that PenAir had planned to lease from Mr. Seybert following the closing of the Chapter 11 asset sale will not be available to fly to St. Paul.
That said, Ravn Air Group has been in close communication with community leaders from St. Paul for many months, after the court approved auction, and as recent as late last week, to keep them informed of these developments and our continuing efforts to work with the Trustee on PenAir matters and get Ravn’s Dash 8 aircraft overwater certified, so we can fly to St. Paul as soon as possible.”
Philemonoff said his focus is on the holidays, knowing family members will want to travel to and from the community to spend time together. He's also concerned about the immediate need for groceries and supplies that are delivered via airplane, and access to medical services that aren't available in St. Paul.
"We live out in the middle of the Bering Sea and all we have is a clinic with mid-level care," Philemonoff said. "If anything serious happens, we need to get them on a plane and to a higher level of care."
Will Mader and Rhonda McBride contributed information to this story.
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