A local airline is beginning scheduled commuter service for passengers between Kenai, Anchorage and Homer, and tickets can be booked now for flights starting Oct. 3.
Kenai Aviation Director of Operations Joel Caldwell said flights have been a long time coming. Work began on making the commuter service a reality when Caldwell bought the business in 2018. He said that they’ve been growing the charter business and building a flight school “to get things set up to the point where we were ready to do a great scheduled service.”
Prior to Caldwell’s ownership, Kenai Aviation was founded by Bob Bielefeld and existed as a charter service from 1961 to 2014. Caldwell purchased and reopened the business in 2018 with a goal of expansion, according to previous Clarion reporting.
Only a few weeks ahead of the start of full scheduled service, Caldwell said “it’s a dream come true for us.”
Caldwell said flight times were designed to fill holes in existing service. He said the most popular option so far has been the 4 a.m. flight from Kenai to Anchorage.
“We are the first flight out in the morning and we’re the last flight back in at night.”
The 4 a.m. service was designed in part to get people to Anchorage in time to catch the early morning outgoing Alaska Airlines flights. Caldwell said this should help people who used to have to fly up the night before, like folks who work on the slope.
The last flight from Anchorage to Kenai, scheduled for 11:30 p.m., is similarly motivated.
“The last flight out of Anchorage was at 10:15,” Caldwell said. Many flights from Alaska Airlines and other large airlines come into town after that. “So people who were stuck waiting in the airport all night now have a much later option to be able to come on home,” Caldwell said.
Other flights target the start and the end of the business day, with Caldwell saying people in both Kenai and Homer should be able to leave early enough and make it back late enough to work the full day.
Caldwell said that when he came to Kenai, Southcentral Airlines serviced the community, and he described their closure in the ‘90s as a “kick in the stomach.”
Caldwell acknowledged the regular presence and service of Grant and Ravn, but “those are out-of-town airlines,” he said. “We’re a significant community here, we should have our own airline.”
Caldwell is proud to say that after more than 20 years, Kenai Aviation is filling that space.
“We bought this brand new airplane, brought it home in April, expecting to start scheduled service in May and we were delayed.”
Working through the “Department of Transportation bureaucracy” took longer than expected, Caldwell said, but now all the details have been ironed out.
The new plane is a Tecnam Traveller, by Italian company Costruzioni Aeronautiche Tecnam.
Caldwell said the plane was developed by a request from airlines in Massachusetts, who needed a commuter-style aircraft to fit their needs. The plane debuted only a couple of years ago.
“Their needs are the same as ours.”
Caldwell said the Traveller purchased by Kenai Aviation is certainly the first one in use in Alaska, but also said it’s the first one west of the Mississippi.
The Traveller features a large space in the rear for baggage, with a smaller space in the nose. It has 11 seats — including pilots — each with a USB charging port.
Caldwell said a benefit of the Traveller is its leg room. The owner of the company is very tall, and Caldwell said if he isn’t comfortable in every seat, his planes go back to redesign.
As of this summer, Caldwell says more than 200 students have gone through programs at the Kenai Aviation Flight School. These range from “never touched an airplane before, all the way up through commercial multi-engine and airline transport pilot ratings.”
Some pilots who have been through the school will be piloting flights as part of the upcoming scheduled service, but Caldwell says some former students are also now pilots with other airlines, like Horizon Airlines, Grant and beyond.
“Expect an airline that has done on-demand service for 61 years,” Caldwell said. “We’re the guys that have always been problem solvers.”
That experience and that culture empowers Kenai Aviation to be more flexible and maneuverable than people are used to, Caldwell said.
He said that led to the design of the flight schedule, but he also mentioned that charter service would continue.
If potential passengers “don’t see a schedule that works for them? All they have to do is charter with us. We go anytime, anywhere.”
Kenai Aviation has a desk in the departures area of the Kenai Municipal Airport, and a dedicated departure space at Gate 2.
Tickets can be purchased at kenaiaviation.com and are a standard $140 between Kenai and Anchorage; $200 between Anchorage and Homer.
Baggage is free for each passenger up to 50 pounds.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.