Story last updated at 7/24/2013 - 1:56 pm
Island Air Express grew from Klawock out of necessity.
It started with Scott Van Valin, director of operations, in 2000 as a single-pilot operation. Van Valin also owned El Capitan Lodge, and found it more efficient to get a single-pilot license together to accommodate lodge passengers. The airplane was a converted Cessna caravan with floats - upgraded with a larger engine and with Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) technology, which makes Island Air Express one of two operators in Southeast that operate on the system.
The modern equipment allows them to safely operate year-round and with flights that can come and go in the dark.
Year-round operation wasn't something they started with.
What started as a way for El Capitan Lodge to carry their lodge patrons around, developed into a niche. Van Valin believes their caravan conversion was the first in the world that converted to a higher-powered engine. It worked wonders moving the lodge passengers - 40 people every three days.
"So some other lodges weren't quite satisfied with the service they were receiving and they asked if we'd be interested in serving their lodge," Van Valin said. "We took on two more water-based lodges."
Operations were still seasonal, but after a couple of years into operating Island Air Express, it became clear they had more time to utilize the airplane - beyond the lodges. Island Air Express started offering three to four round trips between Ketchikan and Klawock daily in the summer. Klawock is the only runway on Prince of Wales Island.
"It picked up pretty quick," Van Valin said. "The problem we had was we were still seasonal. We'd get local customers who were happy to use in the summer, but then we'd disappear in the winter. It was like starting a new business every year. Over the last three years, we've put millions of dollars into this theory of build it and they will come, and they definitely have. Our biggest hurdle, people were not used to the option of getting in a plane and leaving in the dark and getting up into the clouds - what most of the world does on a daily basis. That was a learning curve for our local passengers."
Van Valin enjoys the business because it involves his one of his favorite things -flying.
"I was born in Anchorage and grew up at a fishing lodge," he said. "I've been at a fishing lodge every summer of my life for 41 years now. With the fishing lodge there were always airplanes involved. I learned to fly in Bristol Bay. The best part of this business, one, is the airplane part of it. I like airplanes. The second part is we kind of brought ownership to the local people of the island."
The hangar is in the community; all the maintenance is done there. A staff of eight lives on the island, with two more based out of Ketchikan.
All of this formed to provide reliable service from Prince of Wales.
The service operates several planes, and two weeks ago it purchased another caravan, which will be in service sometime in September.
"There is a plateau to this market," Van Valin said. "We don't intend to be the biggest, baddest people in the aviation world. We just want to stay in this niche. I think we've done pretty well on the passenger side. We're starting to get in to delivering mail reliably. We've applied for a certificate of public convenience. We will start carrying the mail on a reliable basis like we've done for passengers over the past three years."
For more information on schedules and Island Air Express, visit http://www.islandairx.com/
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