Alaskan airline's bankruptcy expected to delay testing, treatment for remote communities

Alaskan airline's bankruptcy expected to delay testing, treatment for remote communities

Alaskan airline RavnAir's decision to file for bankruptcy Sunday is expected to delay the ability for remote communities in the state to be tested for COVID-19.

RavnAir, which operated RavnAir Alaska, PenAir and RavnAir Connect, announced its bankruptcy Sunday in a statement, saying it lost 90 percent of its revenue from passengers due to traveling concerns associated with the coronavirus. The airline had canceled all flights “indefinitely” last week. 

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. (YKHC), which operates a hospital in Bethel and clinics in 48 surrounding villages, planned to start village-based testing last week, before the airline’s announcement, Anchorage Daily News reported

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But spokeswoman Tiffany Zulkosky told The Hill in a statement that none of the communities served by the corporation are accessible by road, and 18 are left without any scheduled passenger or cargo service at this time. 

“Lack of regularly scheduled passenger and cargo service threatens the life and well-being of thousands of Alaskans, while also endangering a delicate supply chain — including the movement of lab samples (like COVID-19 testing kits, blood draws), delivery of chronic medications, personal protective equipment, and much more,” she said.

Without RavnAir Group, the health corporation cannot deliver fragile medications like insulin and cannot retrieve medical samples before they expire. Zulkosky said it is chartering flights to move patients and supplies in “high need circumstances” but acknowledged it is “not a long-term solution.”

YKHC President and CEO Dan Winkelman cautioned in a statement that “If a large COVID-19 surge happens simultaneously in numerous villages, our health system will be overwhelmed.”

“Moreover, under a worse case scenario, even with National Guard support, there will likely not be timely medevacs for all patients and people would die,” he added.

The first coronavirus case was identified in Bethel on Monday as the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium works to send out 2,400 COVID-19 test kits and 40 “rapid testing machines,” each with 48 test kits, to the state’s rural communities. 

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The supplies will be given to tribal health organizations like YKHC for distribution, according to Anchorage Daily News. YKHC is slated to receive four machines but will struggle reaching its communities.

The airline was a main source of transportation for passengers, freight and mail to 115 rural Alaska communities, Anchorage Daily News reported

RavnAir Group cited its need for additional funding as reasoning to ground its 72 planes last week in its Sunday statement. All employees were laid off “until the company is in a position to cover the costs of rehiring, resuming flights and operating to the many communities it serves through our state.”

Meanwhile, other airlines such as Grant Aviation, Ryan Air and Yute are trying to provide minimum service to communities previously only accessible by RavnAir Group, which reduces the number of flights in other communities in the state. 

YKHC spokeswoman Zulkosky said it could take several weeks or a month for these airlines to fill in the gaps.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) banned all nonessential travel in the state and issued a stay-at-home order at the end of March. The state has confirmed 226 coronavirus cases, leading to 27 hospitalizations and seven deaths so far.