FAIRBANKS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reversed its denial of a Fairbanks-Dawson City, Yukon, direct flight next summer, and has announced a plan to double the number of customs positions at Fairbanks International Airport to handle a higher workload.
The federal agency last month denied a proposal by Whitehorse-based Air North to offer nine flights a week between the two cities, citing a staffing shortage in Fairbanks that left it unable handle international flights from the Canadian community. The flights were part of a plan by Holland America to transport as many as 19,000 visitors by air between the destinations, allowing the company to minimize bus travel.
Air North appealed the decision, a move that was backed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Mark Begich, Rep. Don Young and the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, among others.
The appeal to CPB worked on two fronts — not only did the agency approve the cross-border flights, but it dedicated three more permanent positions to Fairbanks to greet them.
Holland America plans to use the air travel schedule to accommodate longer stays for its visitors in Fairbanks and Dawson City. The Alaska Visitor Statistics Program estimates the flights will contribute about $3 million in direct economic impact to Fairbanks.
The added staffing will also be a boon to private and commercial aircraft that routinely travel across the Canada border to Fairbanks. Because of limited staffing at Fairbanks International Airport, customs agents are current available for only eight hours per day, providing a small window of opportunity for small aircraft making the roughly four-hour trip from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.
Tom George, the AOPA regional manager, said in a Nov. 4 letter to CPB that the staffing shortage was jeopardizing both commerce and safety. Fairbanks had previously had 24-hour customs service.
Members of the Alaska delegation issued news releases on Friday applauding the move.
"This is more than a silver lining to the storm cloud that we saw overhead for a bit; this is an open door to 365 days of more international tourism and an increased stream of visitors, commerce and visibility for all of Alaska, but especially the Interior," Murkowski stated.
A statement from Young's office called the move "a victory for not only Fairbanks but our state's entire tourism industry," while Begich echoed that it was "a big win for Fairbanks and Alaska tourism."
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.