Alaska Class ferries were designed to modernize system

Photo by Norman Skan, Ketchikan



Reading Must Read Alaska’s Sept. 17 story on the new Alaska Class ferries made me thankful I’m an old retired guy living in Anchorage and I don’t have to care about the Alaska Marine Highway System, also known as the hole in the water that Alaska throws money into.

The Alaska Class ferries were intended and designed to be “day boats,” boats without hotel accommodations for either the passengers or the crew. They’re called day boats, but they could run night or day.

The purpose of the vessel is not to make long continuous voyages; they run something like an airliner runs. The Alaska Class can go here and there. It can change crews when necessary due to law or union contract. It can even run 24 hours a day, but it does so with a crew that doesn’t live aboard the vessel.

The Alaska Class was designed and built with great fanfare for the express purpose of providing day boat service in Northern Lynn Canal, the heart of AMHS service. Another day boat service was once contemplated for Northern Lynn Canal, the Fairweather Class fast ferries. The important fact here is that the State has never been able to implement true day boat service anywhere in the system. The Fairweathers are an expensive failure, and now the Alaska Classes have failed before they’ve ever even made a revenue passage.

I had the misfortune of being tasked to try to bring the Fairweathers into service. The Fairweathers are, or were, state-of-the-art high-speed craft code catamarans capable of 40 knot speeds in anything like good seas.

The Fairweathers are too high-tech to be beautiful in any traditional sense. But they are technological marvels, and they’re junk as transportation instruments. They’re too small to handle peak summer loads in either Northern Lynn Canal or Prince William Sound, so they have to have another conventional displacement hull vessel assigned to the route with them, which causes both vessels to run at less than full capacity.

Even the conventional vessels can’t break even unless they’re full, and the fast boats that guzzle diesel at 800 gallons per hour absolutely must run full to be at all economically viable.

Now we’re told that since the Walker Administration killed the Juneau Road project, there is no need for day boats in Northern Lynn Canal, so they’re going to modify the Alaska Classes to provide hotel accommodations for the crews and run them as conventional vessels.

There is a word for this, but Suzanne edits out my occasional profanity.

At the 15-1/2 knot speed of the Alaska Classes, it is about four hours from Auke Bay to Haines, another hour and a half to Skagway with Haines layover time, an hour in Skagway for loading and boarding and back to Juneau in about five hours.

That is an easy schedule for a 12-hour day for the crew including tie-up time in Auke Bay. Everybody goes home and rolls in their sweet baby’s arms overnight and starts the process again in the morning. The airlines have been doing it this way for the better part of a century.

The real issue is that the marine pirates, excuse me, marine unions don’t like running ships this way. That was the biggest problem with bringing on the Fairweathers; we wanted to run them like airliners and the unions wanted to run them like 19th century sailing ships.

We tussled with them a bit, tied up the boats a time or two; I even went to Seattle to meet with them, since almost none of them actually live here.

I offered the pirates a 25 percent across the board wage increase if we could write the work rules.   They were never willing to concede anything on their rapacious work rules, but I sure heard a lot about that 25 percent for operating the fast boats.

We never were able to get anything like airline-style work rules where the crew would tie up the boat and an overnight maintenance crew would take care of any necessary work on the vessel.  We were catching hell from the Juneau Empire, the Cordova Times, the Sitka Daily Sentinel, and the Democrat house organ, the Anchorage Daily News about not bringing the greenie/lefty technological marvels into service.

I was scheduled to bargain with the Engineers and the Masters and I was sitting home with no airspeed, no altitude, and no ideas. I wish I still had a copy of my middle of the night email to Jim Clark, Gov. Frank Murkowski’s chief of staff;  basically I told him that oil had been above $50 a barrel for three months or so and we had money, so I thought the best alternative was to throw some money at the (fine gentlemen) and get ourselves off the front pages. Clark told me not to ask him, but to tell him if I could get a deal with them. The rest is history.

The marine highway needs new management. You’ll never be able to run it efficiently or economically if you recruit only from the military and other Jones Act shippers; these are people for whom the cost is no object. They never even think about what something costs.

Back then, I was always being prodded to explore contracting out various functions on the vessels. But what needs to be contracted out is the management of the Alaska Marine Highway System.  There are plenty of companies around the world that run shipping lines effectively.

We need to put people in charge who have never had a government job.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. He only writes for Must Read Alaska when he’s banned from posting on Facebook. Chance coined the phrase “hermaphrodite Administration” to describe a governor who is simultaneously a Republican and a Democrat. This was a grave insult to hermaphrodites, but he has not apologized.


  1. Art,
    I wonder if a road like that long one over the water to the Florida Keys is possible. It seems to survive hurricaines ok though they don’t have cold winter to deal with. Having lived in Petersburg I know the road system for both Wrangell & PSG is already built that could connect between both islands if a keys type bridge could be built near the mouth of the Stikine River. Even if it could not be connected to the mainland road system this might eliminate at least 1 ferry stop & facilitate the viability of that Prince of Whales ferry by increasing their passengers loads. I could see where the waters might be too deep to do this from Juneau to Haines or Skagway.

    • You couldn’t build that highway through the keys or the bridge/tunnel over Chesapeake Bay today; you’d be tied up in permitting and litigation for a century. The reality is that we’re at a place demographically where Southeast Alaska simply doesn’t have to political muscle to protect its interests. With Alaska’s current economics, which are likely its economics for the foreseeable future, voters in the Railbelt have a choice between getting their roads plowed, potholes fixed, and the crime epidemic stemmed and spending money on roads or Jones Act ferries for Southeast, guess which way they go.

  2. Bert Kleinenberg
    Wow the letter from Art Chance brings back the fights I was having with the Maritime Unions during my time as Port Steward (State title Passenger Services Manager)the corruption within the system and political shenanigans was unbelievable. When I left the States employment, I left because I could not work under Bill Sheffield’s administration, I worked for years on a book about this, but during the fire( the Miller Reach fire)I lost all my backup memo’s, Political Correspondence. .Yes MR Chance you are right due to a change in the Master Mates Union contract the majority moved to Seattle and then where flying 1st Class on crew change day to Ketchikan or Juneau.Overtime of 2 Hours for the entire crew when the ship was 5 Minutes late on arrival in Crew change port.Penalty time for Storekeepers when loading stores and for Pursers when checking in Passengers or for Deckhands when they had to clean the Car decks after passengers were allowed to exercise their animals. These are just a few items.All hell broke loose when we finally could control the crewing of the Steward Department and not the Union

  3. Ok, that helps to understand whats going on then. Interestingly, we recently traveled from Bellingham to Haines (enrt to Kenai) on the Columbia but the lounge was closed. We love the lounge! It seemed odd to me in that the lounge was probably one of the more profitable parts of the ferry set up yet it was shut down? Maybe there is a good reason, who knows. Thanks! Dp

    • Two things: First, only the State could lose money on a bar in Alaska with a captive audience. I once got handed a dismissal case against a bartender on one of the mainliners who was accused of having his hand in the till. When I got into it, the AMHS’s inventory and cash control systems were so shoddy that there was no way to tell how much liquor he was supposed to have or how much money he was supposed to have. He was probably stealing, but there was no way in Hell to prove it, and, second, there was a lot of political pressure from the Native villages on the AMHS routes to stop serving alcohol on the vessels and since the current administration is heavily indebted to Native groups, they went along with it and closed all the bars on the vessels.

      • Thanks for the explanations Art. More reasons not to vote for Walker. I understand the “dry” issues & respect that. Maybe that could have been accomplished by closing the lounge when the ship was in those ports. Considering a person from a dry village is immeadiately exposed to alcohol when they leave their neighborhood and visit another community.

        The sloppy accounting is just nuts. dp

  4. Move the legislature to a used ferry.Let it tour the state for 6 months a year.
    Close the capitol the monies saved can be used to support a revised ferry system.
    A link to Canada from our railroad would help a lot also.

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