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Trip Report: The Two Flights Of Glacier Bay National Park
Alaska— known as the last frontier and its vast wilderness — created some of the most difficult-to-reach locations in the United States. On my way to Glacier Bay National Park, I had the chance to travel on both a commuter and a traditional airline to a part of Alaska that can’t be reached by road.
Gustavus, Alaska is ideally situated on Icy Strait and serves as the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. While the park draws over half a million visitors yearly, more than ninety percent arrive on a cruise ship and never set foot in the tiny town. There are two ways to reach the remote city: on a ferry that runs twice a week during the summer or by flying in. I’ve chosen the latter naturally as an AvGeek.
Two airlines are serving the town, Alaska Seaplanes, a Juneau, Alaska-based commuter airline that offers year-round service with up to six daily round trips in the summer, and Alaska Airlines offering one daily round trip between late May and September on an Essential Air Service (EAS) contract. Both airlines offer a single destination from the city of Juneau.
I opted for the Alaska Seaplanes flight into Gustavus due to the limited schedule that Alaska Offers and flew the Seattle-based airline out. Here’s my experience flying in and out of the remote town of Gustavus, Alaska.
You can book directly on the commuter airline’s website or via tour operators, but they won’t show up on search engines such as Google Flight.
All commuter airlines’ check-in counters are in an individual hall away from the traditional airlines, since they do not use TSA security. There are several small waiting areas, and some of them offer great views of the ramp for pristine planespotting opportunities. If you arrive at the airport too early, you can even go out to see all the sightseeing helicopters buzzing in and out every twenty minutes.
As you will be flying on a Cessna 208 airplane, there’s no room for carry-ons, not even your backpack, so the agent will ask you to check everything. The flight comes with a 50lbs (23kg) check-in baggage allowance. The airline charges a fee for heavy single items over 50 lbs.
However, since there’s no explicit limit on how many pieces are allowed, you can take out smaller things and check them individually. I checked in my 5-lb bear canister to avoid paying the overage fee.
The flight boards just a few minutes before its scheduled departure time, since only nine passengers are on it. The pilot will walk you through the ramp to the plane. The process is akin to any commuter flights you’d find in other parts of the world.
As we take off from the airport, you’ll realize the beauty of traveling in Alaska. Despite the gloomy weather, there are grand views of glaciers and glacier-carved valleys on one side of the plane and beautiful views of Auke Bay on the other. Since the prop plane flies much lower and slower than a jet airplane, passengers on my flight also got to spot a breaching whale from the aircraft.
The flight was 20 minutes long. While there were some bumpy sections, views from the Icy Straits certainly helped distract my attention.
The Juneau-based commuter liner runs its own terminal at Gustavus. Upon arrival, you’ll see the small check-in counter passengers use when they depart the town. One will find a small cafe and a local car-rental company along with the check-in counter. Since there is no cell service at the airport, the company even offers free wifi for its visitors. The terminal looked cozy and sweet, like a bed and breakfast.
Alaska Airlines offers a single flight departing Gustavus around 5:30 pm every day. The Department of Transportation subsidizes this flight. However, you can sometimes fly the leg for ‘free’ if you book an award ticket that connects via Juneau. My flight back to Seattle cost the same, whether I depart from Gustavus or Juneau.
The Seattle-based airline also has a terminal to itself in the remote town. There are two check-in counters and a security checkpoint so you can connect to the rest of Alaska’s network. The space was tiny for the 120-plus passengers on the Boeing 737-700 aircraft.
Since the bulk of the passengers were arriving on the shuttle from the national park, the influx of passengers made the check-in space feel more crowded than it otherwise would’ve been. Due to the lack of X-ray machines, all luggage is checked by TSA agents by hand. However, exceptions exist, such as frozen fish in a tethered box. They will get hand carried by an agent to the X-ray machine at the security checkpoint, which generally causes some delay at the check-in counter.
There’s not much space for waiting passengers either. Most passengers waited under the blazing sun on the day of my flight, while the rest waited alongside the check-in line in the terminal without air conditioning. Either option was comfortable.
Security opened about 50 minutes before our scheduled departure time. Like many other small airports, TSA agents needed to juggle between duties letting only a few passengers through each time. They did an incredible job getting everyone through security and allowing the flight to depart on time.
There is another small holding area after security, roughly the size of a batting cage. The place probably holds less than half of the passengers that can fit on the 737, so we started boarding once it filled up. Despite being crowded, it’s outdoors and shaded, so it felt nice on a 70-degree day. As you can imagine, the boarding was a first come, first served affair since passengers didn’t go through security by boarding groups.
After leaving the batting cage, there’s another short walk until you reach the airplane. This first breeze of cool, conditioned air from the vents was very refreshing after waiting at Gustavus airport for hours.
The flight itself was uneventful. Captain notified the passengers there were no services in flight and that the seatbelt sign would be on the entire flight during its short duration. The mountain views were good. However, you are limited to mainly seeing along the horizon since you are on a jet. The flight was just a few minutes shorter than my Cessna flight.
Alaska’s vast wilderness made it difficult for local communities to travel. It also created some of the most breathtaking views, even when traveling between towns. I highly recommend traveling on a smaller plane to cut down your travel time and savor the best views Alaska has to offer.
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