Shortage of crew continues to plague state ferry system

An ongoing shortage of crew is the “No. 1 risk factor” for the Alaska Marine Highway System, Transportation Department Deputy Commissioner Katherine Keith told legislators.

At a Feb. 2 presentation to the Senate Transportation Committee, the ferry system reported it was still short just over 100 crew for full staffing to efficiently operate the winter schedule, about a 20% vacancy factor for onboard employees.

The ferry system, however, is able to run its schedule with crew members picking up extra shifts and overtime to cover the work, and with management denying leave requests, Keith said in an interview after the committee meeting.

Looking toward the busier summer schedule, the system wants to put the 3-year-old Hubbard into service in northern Southeast Alaska starting May 1, “if we can hire enough crew,” Tony Karvelas, acting general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, told an annual gathering of Southeast community officials the day before the Senate committee hearing.

The 280-foot-long, $60 million Hubbard has never gone to work since it left the shipyard. The state added crew quarters to the ferry last year, so that it could operate on longer runs that require a crew change.

Separate from the Hubbard, the Transportation Department has said it can manage the summer schedule, assuming a continuation of overtime and leave restrictions.

The system has been dealing with crew shortages the past two years, as budget cuts imposed in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first year in office in 2019 and then weak traveler numbers during the worst of the pandemic in 2020 sliced deeply into schedules and staffing. Retirements and resignations far outpaced new hires.

The vacancies are spread among the deck, engine and passenger services departments, including junior engineers, oilers, porters, watchmen, able-bodied and ordinary seamen, Keith reported.

“We certainly want to run all the ships all the time,” Matt McLaren, the ferry system’s business development manager, told the Senate Transportation Committee. “That’s certainly the goal. … Our challenge the last couple of years has been finding enough crew to run all the ships.”

Karvelas added a help-wanted plea to his comments at the Southeast Conference annual summit on Feb. 1: “Let your families and friends know.”

The state continues to advertise nationwide for job applicants.

Though ridership crashed during the worst of the pandemic and even before that as budget cuts and vessel breakdowns added uncertainty to the schedule, passenger and vehicle traffic aboard the ferries has been on a downward march since the early 1990s, according to data presented to the Senate committee.

From a peak of 372,000 Southeast passengers in 1992, traffic plunged to 152,000 in 2019 as rising ticket prices, reliability issues and changing traveler preferences took a toll. COVID-19 travel restrictions dropped the numbers even further, down to 44,000 in 2020.

The passenger count for 2022 is not final yet, but it looks still to be below 2019 traffic.

Vehicle numbers dropped from 97,000 cars, trucks and RVs in 1992 to 58,000 in 2019.

“The system is facing tremendous challenges that need to be addressed,” Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. James Kaufman said. “The overall trend is downward.”

The state ferries “once were a very fun way for people to travel across our state,” Keith acknowledged, pledging that the department has embarked on a multi-part effort to improve reliability and customer service.

The governor’s proposed budget, which legislators are just starting to review, shows fewer port calls in the fiscal year 2024 spending plan than this year. That is because many of the ships will be going out of service for repairs, upgrades or overhauls, McLaren told the committee.

The fleet’s largest vessel, the Columbia, is back on the schedule for this summer after a three-year absence for repairs and to save money. But the Columbia later this year could go back into the shipyard for replacement of its controllable pitch propeller system, and the fleet’s second-largest ship, the Matanuska, is out of service for an unknown amount of time as the department decides whether to spend millions of dollars to replace wasted steel and make other repairs and upgrades.

The state needs to decide what makes sense for the 60-year-old ship long term, Transportation Department Commissioner Ryan Anderson told the Southeast Conference.

Alaska will receive about $285 million in federal aid over the next few years to help pay for modernization of the fleet, pay for replacement for the Tustumena, which serves Gulf of Alaska communities, repairs to several ferry docks and other expenses, including improving service to rural communities.

Spending decisions for the federal money, which was added to the budget by Alaska’s senior U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, will be up to the Legislature and governor.


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