AMHS PROBLEMS PLAGUE SOUTHEAST ALASKA COMMUNITIES
By Mary Lynne Dahl
December 07, 2017
My husband and I are frequent customers of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. We have been sailing on the Ketchikan – Prince Rupert run about 6 round trips per year for 16 years, mostly in winter. We have become very familiar with many of the boats and crew over these years.
As a result of so much experience as customers, we were very disappointed to hear the latest news that the ferry system will shut down this run for over 2 months this winter. I do understand that the state is in dire financial condition which is very hard on the funding of the ferry system but it is wrongto solve this problem on the backs of southern southeast Alaska, Ketchikan in particular. Our ferry service to the nearest mainland port has already been cut from 3 times per week to 2, then from 2 times per week to 1 time per week, more than the 50% reduction in state budget revenue. This is grossly unfair to Ketchikan.
In the past, I have complained that the Ketchikan – Prince Rupert run schedule was very inconvenient. The days of departure from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert changed often. The time of departure is rarely the same from week to week. Periodically, the run would cancel for a week or two. Arrivals in Prince Rupert varied from 1:00 a.m. to 3:30 a.m., which in winter is both inconvenient and dangerous if it is snowing, which is usually the case. My suggestion that it would be more attractive to customers to ride the ferry if it departed Ketchikan the same day and the same time every week has always been met with the response that this is not possible because the ferry comes from the north and must transit the Wrangell Narrows. However, the Bellingham ferry comes from the north, through the Wrangell Narrows, on its way to Ketchikan, and it has managed to depart Ketchikan for the ride to Bellingham on the same day and at the same hour every week, for many years. This is true regardless of which boat is in service.
In years past, the Bellingham ferry stopped in Prince Rupert to allow passengers on and off. Why can’t it do that again? In the summer you would probably not have room but in the winter the Bellingham ferry is not full. If the Bellingham winter run stopped in Prince Rupert going north and south, the way it has done in the past, we would solve more than one problem. It would create some additional revenue to the ferry system, give riders a way to get south without ending up in Washington State (many of us want to visit and do business in Canada, not Washington State) and it would offer a reliable, convenient sailing at the same time on the same day every week in Ketchikan without the expense of a second boat. In addition to more revenue from passenger traffic, more revenue would also result if freight could be picked up and off-loaded in Prince Rupert on this run to Ketchikan, but as it is now, going from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan is so unreliable that shippers use the barge instead.
Twice while we were already south, planning our return trip, paid for in advance of course, we were stranded in British Columbia because the return trip north was simply cancelled. This was only a few days before our planned departure. We discovered that our return sailing was cancelled only because our neighbor in Ketchikan called us and told us she had read about it in the paper that morning. The Bellingham ferry was totally full, according to a very unsympathetic ferry clerk that we spoke to about our choices to get home. As a result, we were forced to drive north from Smithers BC to Haines, Alaska and get on that ferry heading south to Ketchikan. We drove almost 1,000 miles north, a 20 hour slog in the winter, caught the ferry south and spent 2.5 days on the ferry just to travel a trip that usually is only about 90 nautical miles one way.
Recently, on the Ketchikan to Prince Rupert ferry run, I observed the purser’s desk clerk assigning cabins using pencil and paper. On many prior trips, I observed ferry workers in the cafeteria, 4 to a table, chatting for almost a hour at a time. On a recent trip south, we were assigned a cabin that had not been cleaned. Ferries that dock prior to the cafeteria opening at 6:00 a.m.do not offer coffee or a cold breakfast to travelers. On all of my trips I have wondered why there is no internet available to customers, which I would be glad to pay for, but it is not available. I know it is on the boat; my mobile device recognizes it but cannot connect because it is not for the public to use. Recently on a trip to New Zealand, my husband reported to me that the ferry offered Wi-Fi for sale to travelers. That is smart. In addition, they sold beer for $7.50 each. Our ferry does neither of these things. Instead, it cuts out the sale of alcohol and does not offer Wi-Fi, two services that are in demand and would offer good profit margins.
The bottom line for this ferry run is that ridership on this run is low because the trip is unreliable, unpredictable, inconvenient and absolutely not customer friendly. So of course it is does not produce enough revenue. Increase the ridership by correcting these problems and the revenue will increase as well.
Over the past few years, many suggestions for improving the Ketchikan to Prince Rupert run have been offered. Ideas that would increase revenue, like discounts for advance purchase of tickets, group rates, frequent rider discounts, a marketing plan to attract RVs and camper vans winter as well as summer, special deals for long haul truck loads, adventure packages for trekkers, hikers and kayakers and more. None of these suggestions has gotten much traction.
In an effort to support and encourage economic growth between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough on Nov.14 of this year passed Resolution 2739, which is intended to demonstrate that close economic, cultural and social ties between the 2 cities is a priority. It specifically mentions activities between the Port of Prince Rupert and the future of the AMHS as being key to economic development between the 2 cities. Shutting down the ferry system for such a long time flatly undermines this stated priority and demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the economic development efforts of Ketchikan.
I am sure other people have good ideas as well. I am dismayed and disappointed to read that the ferry system cannot do anything better to solve the current problems with this run than shut it down for months at a time. Shame on AMHS! A poor management plan, with systemic personnel problems, budget deficits and a total disregard for customer service is a legacy no one can be proud of. The solutions lie in a totally new management plan, a new approach to personnel best practices, innovative marketing and privatization of much of the system. Residents of Ketchikan and surrounding communities deserve better than what we are getting.
Mary Lynne Dahl
About: Long time resident, long term ferry customer, business owner and Certified Financial PlannerTM with 34 years of experience at solving problems..
Received December 07, 2017 - Published December 07, 2017
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