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Alaska bypass mail change delays shipments, food

Published June 25, 2006 12:27 am

Cost reduction: Postal service discontinues direct flights; residents worry produce won't last
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

BARROW, Alaska - Life here was simpler, if less nutritious, 40 years ago.

A serving of vegetables might be a dash of dried onion flakes and a limp carrot tossed into a stew of wild game in this largely Inupiat Eskimo community.



But today, cooks can choose from red, yellow and green onions and find carrots with crunch at generally well-stocked local grocery stores.

They can thank a U.S. Postal Service program that not only ensured the regular delivery of goods and groceries to 139 remote Alaska villages but also spurred development of a busy air-transport system across the state.

Called bypass mail and unique to the state, the program has helped cash-poor rural communities thrive and grow over the years. Its beneficiaries are naturally protective of the system.

That much was clear when the Postal Service recently announced Barrow's bypass mail no longer would be flown directly from Fairbanks, but instead trucked 300 miles up a haul road to the town of Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay then flown the remaining 200 miles to Barrow.

Barrow, population 4,800, is the mail hub for three smaller villages that will also be affected by the change. Other Alaska villages that use bypass mail are unaffected.

Private air carriers that handle the mail say the change will cost them. Officials in Barrow and Fairbanks worry about ripple economic impacts, while Barrow residents fret about the longer transport time for produce.

Grocers say they have seen a marked difference since the new system went into effect June 5.

In Wainwright, a coastal village of 700 people southwest of Barrow, store manager Linda Nayakik last week tossed half a case of potatoes and bags of garden salad that turned rotten just days after they arrived.

Her latest shipment showed up a week late, she said, and the freezer goods were almost thawed.

Such delays are common in winter, she said, ''but in summer it shouldn't be. But we heard our stuff was stuck in Deadhorse.''

Aqamak Okpik, who grew up in Barrow and works as a nutritional adviser with low-income families, noticed a $4.50 head of iceberg lettuce she bought for a Father's Day meal was limp the next day.

If food quality deteriorates because it takes longer to get to Barrow and to the smaller villages beyond, she's worried people will turn away from foods that will only get pricier as stores recoup their losses from spoilage.

''It's hard to get people to eat fruits and vegetables anyways because it's so expensive, and now we're going to take the quality and make it a little bit yuckier,'' she said.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, authored the legislation in 1970 that created bypass mail to serve the state's many far-flung villages that are not accessible by road.

Stevens felt Alaskans had the same right to goods and services as citizens in the rest of the country, said spokeswoman Janel Causey. But groceries generally arrived in these subsistence-based communities once a year by barge.

''Stevens was concerned about the health of Alaskans who couldn't have access to fresh foods,'' said Causey, who added a spin-off benefit of the program has been regular passenger air service for communities that might not have been served otherwise.

Under the program, which has changed little over the years, the U.S. Postal Service pays air carriers to deliver the mail, dividing up shipments among the eligible carriers along the route, and charging shippers third and fourth class postal rates for what is essentially first class service.

Bypass mail, so called because the shipments bypass the post office and go straight to the carrier, accounts for more than 80 percent of the total mail volume in Alaska - most of it canned goods, soda pop, produce and other groceries.

It's a money-losing proposition for the Postal Service- to the tune of $50 million to $70 million a year, said Steve Deaton, a Fairbanks-based operations specialist with the Postal Service.

''We just end up eating the loss,'' he said. ''Every chance we get, we try to reduce those losses whenever surface transportation is available. It's important to remember that's exactly what the customer purchased is surface transportation.''

He said trucking the mail up the haul road to Prudhoe Bay will save the Postal Service an estimated $1.4 million a year and still get the mail to Barrow within the seven- to 10-day service standards.

Deaton said the new system is working better than anyone anticipated. The food is arriving in Prudhoe Bay in good shape via temperature-controlled vans where it is stored in similarly controlled facilities until it's ready for the one-hour hop to Barrow.

The Fairbanks-based air carriers are still figuring out the logistics, but they say the real test of the new system will come this winter as they try to get in and out of these often fog-bound Arctic communities.

Bill Fowler, chief executive officer of Northern Air Cargo, said the mail stacks up when either Deadhorse or Barrow is inaccessible.

''We have to have good weather in two places in order to move that mail . . . If it's in Fairbanks, we would only have to have good weather in Barrow,'' he said.

The new system also costs them more, they say, and that will have to be accounted for next time the postal rates are set, further driving up prices in bush Alaska.

Nevertheless, they are scrambling to deal with the change. Alaska Airlines has started routing its combined cargo-passenger planes through Deadhorse to pick up the mail and, contrary to predictions, the airline has not raised passenger fares, business being buoyed so far by the busy travel season.

At least one of the smaller air carriers has based a plane in Deadhorse to avoid the expense of flying an empty leg from Fairbanks to pick up the mail.

Robert Ragar, cargo director for Everts Air Cargo, said the companies are trying to make the best of things. No one wants to lose a prized contract to competitors.

''It's not like we have a choice, except to say no, and I don't think any of us want to do that yet,'' he said.

 

 

 

 

 

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