They carry freight, mail, even pizza to outlying communities. In the summer they fly tourists by the thousands over glaciers and to remote fishing holes. The Last Frontier has more pilots per capita than any other state.
Many are worried about a Federal Aviation Administration plan that would more than triple fuel taxes for general aviation aircraft. This group includes small planes and helicopters--all aircraft other than military and scheduled commercial airline flights.
The FAA said it needs a new funding system to pay for an upgrade to the air traffic control system. This involves moving from outdated radar and radio-based equipment to satellite navigation technology. The Administration said it will help prevent gridlock in the sky. The FAA funding bill is now working its way through the U.S. senate. A companion bill is expected soon from the house.
Juneau's air taxi operators outnumber those offering car service.
Typically the owners of these small companies are multi-taskers. They fly and fix planes, keep the books and answer the phones. Ed Kiesel is co-owner of Ward Air. When he started flying in the 1980s he said he bought gas from an uncle and paid about 50 cents per gallon. Today in Juneau that's up to five dollars. The FAA's new funding proposal would add 50 cents in tax for every gallon. The cost for short hops around the region could increase by ten dollars.
Kiesel said he would have to pass that cost onto customers. "This afternoon I'm heading out to Green's Creek Mine, to Hawk Inlet and then to the Snettisham power plant. I just flew a couple out to the Herbert Glacier to celebrate their anniversary. They'd all be affected," he said.
Last year the Juneau International Airport hired a new manager. Dave Palmer's office overlooks a paved runway and the snow-covered floatplane pond. That's where Palmer lands his Cessna in warmer weather. He said the FAA's proposal would reduce costs for major airline carriers by about 20 percent per year, and increase them for small plane operators. Palmer said that's unfair because general aviation aircraft require few services from the FAA. When he wants to fly, all he does is check with the FAA's weather service and files a flight plan with its administrators. "As big an issue as the increase for fuel is the issue that it could go to a dollar next year or they could decide, in addition to the fuel tax, they need to start charging us to land our planes or to file a flight plan," observes Palmer.
There are discrepancies over who uses how much of the FAA's system and how this will change in the future.
Hank Price is an FAA spokesperson based in Washington, DC. He said commercial airlines pay 95 percent of the cost for the air transport system. But they account for only 73 percent of its workload. He said the new proposal is designed so that all users shell out their fair share. It's also supposed to reflect a large increase in sky traffic.
"Recently we had our FAA forecast conference and the numbers are pretty staggering. Take-offs and landings at commercial airports are going to increase each year by 1.4 million on average. And if you look out to 2020, general aviation is going to be increasing by 59 percent," he said.
U.S. Senator Ted Stevens said pilots should expect a cost increase, but he's not in favor of the proposed tax. At an annual meeting with state legislators in March, he warned its consequences would be dire.
"The idea of putting that kind of a burden on general aviation would collapse the basic local transportation system for cargo and for people," he said.
The FAA's budget is usually reauthorized every five years. It expires on September 30.
Small plane owner Kiesel hopes a reauthorization won't change an Alaska way of life. "Flying is such an integral part of life around here. It's hard to imagine not having airplanes around, but it's getting so expensive people are going to have to start coming up with an alternative," he said.