The Economics of Island Air Taxis

By Glenna Hall

I, too, want to thank Jim for this amazing opportunity. As other guest bloggers before me have done, let me introduce myself before I begin my week. I was born in 1940, which has given me a relatively long perspective on what I see today. I am a retired superior court judge, a musician, a self-styled computer geek, and an instrument-rated private pilot. The bulk of my legal and judicial career was spent in Seattle, but I am now living in a tiny island community in the San Juan Islands in the northwest corner of Washington State. I can see Canada from my house. Here I am occasionally filling in for the local judges, taking music lessons, flying airplanes, and serving on the library board. On the day I wrote this paragraph, I had already seen a half dozen bald eagles, a pair of trumpeter swans swimming, and a minuscule dog with a leopard-skin scarf being pushed in a stroller by a woman wearing a leopard-skin jacket. I couldn't have imagined a better life than this.

Jim's guest blogs have been full of airplanes and flying. It's been my impression since I started flying almost twenty years ago that pilots are interesting and interested people, so the surfeit of writing on the topic is not surprising. I will be carrying on this theme. Some other things I hope to write about involve where I live, so a bit about living in the San Juan Islands is in order.

Most of the islands that make up the archipelago are in San Juan County. None are reachable by land, and only four are served by the Washington State Ferry System (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw). I live on San Juan Island, the major community of which is Friday Harbor, the county seat. The population of the whole county is about 15,500, and the population of this island is estimated at around 7,000. A number of the islands have airports that can serve reasonable sized airplanes, and there are marinas all over the place.

The demographics on San Juan Island are quite complicated. There are a number of largely invisible super-rich and famous (not generally full-time residents); a lot of middle and upper-middle-class retirees and professionals; a number of leftover hippy types from the '70s and '80s; and a relatively small number of less well-off folks (non-subsidized housing is pricey here). The majority of the resident population is quite politically liberal, very well educated, and suprisingly welcoming to sympatico newcomers, who, if willing, can quickly get involved in the community.

You can read some divergent recent information about the islands generally, and San Juan particularly, here and here.

Not long before Jim took off, he wrote a rejoinder to Jeffrey Goldberg's article on the "menace" of small private aircraft. Jim eloquently argued against Mr. Goldberg's contention that this part of air transportation was inherently a threat to security, but he did agree that there was a significant degree of economic unfairness in some people having the wherewithal to travel free of the really unpleasant aspects of commercial air travel. Jim said:

Jeff's right that there is a huge class privilege that goes with the private jet world. It lies in the ability to cut through all the hassle that is today's commercial airline system. People rich enough to own or charter jets travel when and where they want; don't have to stand in lines; don't have to give up their water or take off their shoes; don't have to build two extra hours into travel time to allow for everything that can go wrong at the airport.  . . .That is "unfair," and it is chapter 12,748 in the ongoing "polarization of America" saga. But a major new security threat it ain't.

I can't really disagree with that, and I sometimes experience a scaled-down version of it myself.

As I mentioned above, there is no land route whatsoever to the island where I live. We do have ferries, run by the state department of transportation. These are big car ferries: fairly comfortable, and they go about as fast as you can reasonably expect a big boat to go.

A trip from my house to Seattle with a car, from portal to portal, involves this travel time: a 20-minute drive to the ferry line, anywhere from a half hour to an hour waiting in the ferry line, at least an hour and five minutes on the ferry, and at least 90 minutes to complete the drive to Seattle. A minimum total of three and a half hours, usually more, depending on the season and time of day. A seven-hour round trip, with almost 180 driving miles. The ferry fare for the car and a non-senior driver is $40. A passenger costs an extra $11.50. (Ferry fares will soon go up substantially, since, like most states, Washington is short of money.) If you figure the cost of mileage at the current IRS rate of 50 cents per mile, the cost of just the driving part would be $90, so the round trip total is $130 without a passenger. People who live here pay these costs regularly but grudgingly.

One day a few months ago I needed to be in Seattle for a couple of hours, but instead of driving, I splurged on a round trip on Kenmore Air, a small but scheduled carrier that flies both float planes and relatively small land airplanes. 30 minutes down, an hour back (there was a stop at Orcas Island on the way back). I was asked to be at the terminal 15 minutes before the scheduled departure. If all the passengers arrived before the scheduled time, the plane would board and leave then. The pilot gives a brief safety speech, and the plane taxis onto the runway and takes off immediately.

No security lines -- why should there be? I am known personally to the people at the terminal here, and there is plenty of time to observe the prospective passengers closely at both terminals. We do have to confess our weight, and our luggage is actually weighed, as well.

I left at 10:30 a.m. and was home by 4:30 p.m.  I was able to add to my medical appointment lunch with a friend, who met me at the airport in Seattle. I didn't have to drive by myself on dark, wet freeways.
The rub, of course, was that it cost a lot -- almost $220. I feel I can afford to do that now and again, but many of my friends up here don't. Of course, you may say, we have all chosen to live in an inconvenient place, and that's true. I have factored in the cost of an occasional such trip as a cost of living here.  Is it unfair?  Maybe. On the other hand, if I total up the real costs of doing that trip by car and ferry, it comes to $130. And that extra $90, in these tough times, matters.

The provision of emergency medical services provides another interesting wrinkle about air transportation on and off the island. For just $79 per year, a family can get medical airlift insurance. In a medical emergency, that means being transported to a full-service, sophisticated hospital very quickly. Of course, nothing's that simple.  Recently a friend had to be airlifted to a hospital in Bellingham, about 20 air-minutes away.  She spent a day undergoing tests and was discharged in the late afternoon. But -- DOH! -- the service doesn't make any provision for getting back.

Fortunately, she had all her clothes, her wallet, and her cell phone with her, and was able to make her way back to the ferry terminal in Anacortes in time for the last (slow) ferry of the evening.  Total time from hospital to home:  around six hours.  No affordable air service was available.

Jim wrote quite a while ago about carriers like Kenmore being the future of air travel, and it would be great if it could happen. It hasn't yet, and unless it becomes more economically feasible, it won't.

Glenna Hall, a retired superior court judge and mediator, lives on San Juan Island, Washington.