SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



Jet is good, fast ferries are bad
By Sen. Kim Elton


March 27, 2006

Here's the Murkowski conundrum--selling the jet as convenient and efficient while saying fast ferries are costly and inefficient.

Let me say right upfront, when I'm comparing the jet to fast ferries I'm mixing apples and oranges 'cause the obvious big difference between the jet and a fast ferry is that one travel option is for the governor and his invitees and the other travel option is for everyone else. But because of that big difference, there's also an uncomfortable tinge of class distinction in the jet and ferry rhetoric from the administration--kind of like: "who needs day care, just hire an au pair".

If we ought to love the jet because it is convenient for the governor, why can't we love fast ferries because they're convenient for the rest of us? I like getting on the fast ferry and being at the other end of Lynn Canal quickly. I appreciate I can get to Haines in 2.5 hours in the morning on the Fairweather instead of taking 4.5 hours, sometimes in the middle of the night, on the Taku.

So, if the governor doesn't like the fast ferries because of costs, why must we like the governor's jet? His jet costs far more than twice as much to run per hour as the prop plane he used to use (when you add fuel, crew and a maintenance contract predicated on airtime together). That's okay, a bean counter for the governor told the AP a week or so ago, the jet may cost twice as much to fly but it gets there nearly twice as fast.

Strange how they trot that argument out for the jet but don't for the fast ferry. Sure, the Fairweather burns 534 gallons per hour while the Taku burns 258 gallons per hour. But, just like the jet, the Fairweather gets nearly twice as far in one hour as the Taku. That makes it about a wash on fuel costs.

The rest of the story is the Taku has a much larger crew. The winter daily cost for the Fairweather crew is south of $9,000 and for the Taku it's north of $19,000. So, big advantage Fairweather when crew and fuel costs are added together.

Then there is the reliability issue. The governor and his minions say the Fairweather is mismatched for Alaska's weather and seas. That's a tough sell given that the Fairweather only missed one scheduled run in 2005 because of weather and none because of mechanicals. (Yes, I know, the Fairweather now has some hairline cracks in engine heads but that's because the manufacturer recommended the wrong lubricant. And yes, I know, the Chenega missed some runs in Lynn Canal because of bad weather this month but, after all, its design limitations for winter weather only suggested it will run 95 percent of the time. So far, so good.) The Fairweather also carried more than 53,000 passengers and that's more than any other boat in the ferry fleet.

As we talk about reliability, it should be noted the governor has used his jet for four months and it has been unavailable, in the shop for scheduled maintenance or other work, for at least 27 days--just under a quarter of the time since he joined the jet set. The Fairweather was out one day last year because of weather and in for scheduled maintenance three weeks, about 5.7 percent of the time.

So, convenience and reliability. Jet and ferry. The fast ferry is convenient for the riders and ran last year. The jet is convenient for the governor just 75 percent of the time.

But to be fair, the governor says the jet isn't just for him. The other rationalization is the jet will move prisoners back and forth from a private prison in Arizona. If only the Fairweather could haul prisoners, maybe the governor and his ferry chief would change their minds about the fast ferries.

Ah, probably not. Over the past two months, the governor's jet has made only one prisoner flight to and from Arizona--all the other prisoners are going on commercial or contracted aircraft. That's actually good news because it's cheaper to move prisoners back and forth from the Arizona private prison when they don't fly the governor's jet. The Associated Press reports it cost the state $2,160 (partial airtime costs only) to transport a prisoner on the governor's jet and just $1,482 for a ticket (that pays for airtime and all other overhead costs) to move 'em on Alaska Airlines. The contract with Pen Air is only available on occasion, but runs around $750 per prisoner.

Speaking of airtime and non-airtime costs, the governor's folks say they don't know what the total costs for airtime plus non-airtime really is for his jet. They've admitted as much in the budget they've submitted for the next fiscal year. I don't know what total jet costs are either but I'm trying to find out.

The jet's airtime costs are pretty straightforward. On a per hour basis, the two jet pilots and fuel costs have been running over $1,000. That's what the guv's figures show. But that's misleading. We also know the state has signed a maintenance contract with an Arizona outfit that runs about $180 per hour for each hour each one of the jet's two engines are fired up. That's another $360 per hour not noted by the administration when they tally airtime costs. (For example, in January, I noted the governor could have caught any of about a hundred commercial flights to get from Vegas to Dallas for as little as $400 instead of using his jet for a cost of $7,338 in airtime. If I'd known then about the extra $360/hour for the maintenance contract based on the hours the two engines were running, I'd have reported the real airtime cost of about $9,300 for his Vegas-Dallas jet trip.)

The administration actually has two maintenance contracts for the jet. One is predicated on number of hours the engines are wound up, the other is a flat fee of about $50,000/year with another firm for "scheduled maintenance." In March, the jet flew to Minnesota for service under this $50,000 contract (the flight to and from this out-of-state contractor cost an additional $14,000 in airtime only costs). Add to what we know about some of the airtime costs and the maintenance contracts other real or potential costs like hangers, landing fees, having two jet pilots on the payroll who get paid whether they fly or not; and crew per diem. All these costs are undetermined.

But two things can be determined:

  • if the jet/ferry numbers offered by the governor and his appointees were cups of flour, the administration actually has enough for some half-baked biscuits. But those biscuits lack so much yeast they're hard to swallow; and
  • convenience for ferry passengers is a cost worth totaling but convenience for the governor's jet travel remains a cipher..

About: Senator Kim Elton (D) is a member of the 24th Alaska State Legislature representing Senate District B - Juneau, Douglas, Auke Bay, Aukquan. He has been a resident of Alaska since 1961.


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