Use it or lose it: Our new flight to Juneau

Or you can keep chipping away at War and Peace on the ferry

Last week brought exciting news for the capital cities of Alaska and the Yukon. Alaska Seaplanes announced plans for thrice-weekly flights between Whitehorse and our sister city Juneau from May to September.

The flight will take only 45 minutes. If this strikes you as a violation of the laws of physics, that’s because you’ve spent too much time on eight-hour ferry rides from Skagway to Juneau. The two capital cities are only around 270 kilometres apart if you can fly instead of reading a few Tolstoy novels on the ferry.

One unfortunate thing about life in the North is that the transportation corridors tend to run North-South. It’s relatively cheap and easy to fly from Juneau to Seattle, Whitehorse to Vancouver, and Yellowknife to Edmonton. But it’s hard to go East-West between circumpolar cities.

There is no way to leave Alaska’s capital by road, so this new travel option is particularly appealing to Juneauites. The Juneau Empire reports that Alaska Seaplanes’ announcement drew a standing ovation at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. The Empire reported that Juneau’s city manager said, “I think it is a big deal to have another option out of town.”

He went on to mention Whitehorse’s summer flights to Europe. Getting to Frankfurt from Juneau will be several hours shorter compared to the Juneau-Seattle-Europe route, for example. In a rare event for online newspaper sites, the reader comments were full of positive energy.

Juneauites are also active adventurers like Yukoners, so will enjoy easier access to our rivers, mountains and local activities.

The route also makes it easier to foster community ties. The past Juneau tennis and soccer exchanges I have participated in have been a lot of fun. They offer participants the chance to hone their skills against new competitors, experience different facilities, make new friends and see another northern city.

Tennis Yukon’s Capital Cup challenge with Juneau is a nice example. Hosted in one capital or the other, it fosters friendly competition between players from the two cities of all ages and skill levels. They even let me play, although (full disclosure) perhaps this was because my wife was one of the organizers.

It can also be fun to see your own city through the eyes of others. It was news to me a few years ago when some young women from Juneau visiting for a tennis tournament told us that Whitehorse’s après-tennis bar scene featured a surprisingly large number of hipster men with man buns and skinny jeans.

Better access to Juneau is a great addition to Whitehorse lifestyles (as is Air North’s connection to Yellowknife). Juneau offers whale-watching, ocean fishing, new sea kayak and hiking routes, an active community theatre scene and shopping.

No matter what the exchange rate, Yukoners seem to find deals at Costco and Fred Meyer.

Alaska Seaplanes says the purchase of a Pilatus PC-12 was an important part of making the business case work.

According to marketing bumf from its Swiss manufacturer, the PC-12 is much more than your usual single-propeller plane and is one of the “most popular turbine-powered business aircraft on the market today.”

Scott McMurren writes on travel for the Anchorage Daily News and told Alaska Public Radio in Haines that the nine-seat PC-12 is a “comfy ride” and “basically your own private executive plane.”

In addition to claiming low operating costs, the plane is fast and comfortable since it is fully pressurized. Its five-blade graphite composite propeller slashes cabin noise. Its engine is made by Pratt & Whitney Canada and is said to be the most dependable engine ever built, which is good since the PC-12 only has one engine. And it boasts a large, heated and pressurized cargo space so you can bring your Juneau shopping with you. The standard version of the PC-12 features a pallet-sized cargo door, which may be needed based on some of the pickups with Yukon plates I’ve seen leaving the Juneau Costco.

The airline still needs final approval by Transport Canada for its new route, and its website doesn’t show final pricing. Hopefully it will be in the range of Alaska Seaplanes’ flights from Juneau to Skagway, which is also about 45 minutes. These currently cost around US$ 135 for a one-way ticket.

Achieving a low price point is important. We have had scheduled air travel between the two cities before, but the challenge with such routes is the cost doom loop. High costs mean higher ticket prices, which reduces the number of passengers, which lowers the load factor, which means the cost per passenger gets forced even higher.

Air North has proved that lower fares can stimulate more travel. Hopefully the PC-12 lives up to its promise and allows cheap fares. If that’s the case, the other thing the airline needs is demand.

If Whitehorse and Juneau travellers don’t keep the planes full, Alaska Seaplanes’ will suffer the same fate as previous attempts to serve the capital cities route.

As with Air North’s Yellowknife route, I would encourage you to put Juneau on your travel list for this summer. If you run a sports or cultural organization, give your Juneau counterparts a call and see what kind of ideas for Northern collaboration and exchanges you can come up with.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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