From a bird’s eye view, or maybe a pilot’s view, the Kenai Airport hasn’t changed much. The footprint is almost exactly the same, but to visitors arriving through that terminal, it’s a totally different place than two years ago.
The City of Kenai took on a comprehensive airport terminal overhaul starting in 2018. The terminal hadn’t had a serious remodel in decades. With about a $12 million price tag, the vast majority of the money came from the Federal Aviation Administration. A small match—about $1.5 million—came from the city.
Airport manager Mary Bondurant said the only material change to the footprint of the terminal was moving the back wall out about seven feet, which gave the airlines more space for baggage processing. The last thing they’re waiting on is some new furniture.
"You know, the last time it had really been rehabbed was in the '80s," she said. "So basically, what we did was we met with our tenants, stakeholder meetings, looked what our needs were. A lot of it you don’t see—mechanical, electrical.”
In addition to the new siding, flooring and additional windows, some new taxidermied animals have made an appearance in the terminal. Business tenants like the rental car agencies have new offices, and there is additional space for more tenants. The restaurant space, which is currently occupied by Brothers Café, also got an update.
When the section of the terminal near the ticket desks was renovated, the longtime public lands display had to come out. The public land agencies in the peninsula area, headed up by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, teamed up to refresh it, and the result is a floor-to-ceiling set of informational panels with dozens of crisp images. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge visitor services manager Matt Conner said it highlights not just the refuge, but also Katmai National Park, Lake Clark National Park, and the Kenai Fjords National Park.
In the center is a huge map extending away from Kenai to Lake Iliamna, Lake Clark, and down to the Outer Coast. In the past, people have largely come to Kenai for one thing: fishing. But with fish runs down and questions about capacity, the display suggests a wide variety of other activities, from bear viewing to kayaking to staying in public use cabins. Conner said that was part of the point.
"Not that there’s anything wrong with fishing—I to fish myself," he said. "But I think people didn’t realize that they were just taking a very small piece of the experience here. I don’t think they even realized how much more there was available to them. Everything from our visitors centers to different ways to experience and get out and see the refuge."
The city of Kenai has managed the airport since the military handed it over. Most years, the airport sees more than 100,000 enplanements, which has held relatively steady over the years, though this year’s downturn will be an outlier. Between April 2019 and 2020, traffic was down more than 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Bondurant said they’re down to about 2,000-3,000 enplanements for July, which is usually the most packed month.
Some of that is just concern about flying, though Kenai hasn’t reported any outbreaks connected to flights so far.
"Especially with this virus, we’re not sure when that’s going to recover," she said. "Because people aren’t flying, we’ve seen a huge drop in our enplanements. Until people head back to work and are safe in their flying, our numbers will remain low."
Another part may be the loss of Corvus Air, operated by Ravn, a passenger air service that declared bankruptcy in April. Right now, the only operator flying between Kenai and Anchorage is Grant Aviation, which upped flights some this spring to try to increase capacity for people trying to make the route, which is an approximately 20-minute flight compared to a three-hour drive. Ravn sold its assets in a bankruptcy auction, and California-based FLOAT Shuttle bought the Part 121 planes, which are the regularly scheduled craft. They hope to resume regular flights between Kenai and Anchorage in September.
Rob McKinney will serve as CEO of Corvus Airlines, which will operate as Ravn. He said September is the goal, but there are still some kinks in the process to work out.
"We thought that the closing would have taken place already, that put us a little bit behind with the (Federal Aviation Administration) and also the US (Department of Transportation)," he said. "Ultimately, they’re the ones that decide when Ravn is ready to resume commercial air service.
The new owners picked up many of the pilots and previous Ravn staff, and McKinney said they are excited to provide service again, particularly to the rural areas that don’t have any service at all right now. In Southcentral, they’re planning to start flying from Homer to Anchorage, Kenai to Anchorage, and Valdez to Anchorage again.
FLOAT Shuttle is the holding company, and McKinney says they were able to purchase Ravn with no debt. Things are still changing, but he says one thing they’re focused on as a company is customer service.
"I just want to reassure everyone that customer service is our number one priority—that everybody is going to be put back not only through the safety training that they need to have... but they’re also going to go through customer service training because we realize that Ravn is really just, at its heart, a service that happens to be an airline," he said. "So taking care of the people that will be our customers is our top priority."
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.