Image courtesy of Scott Harris.

Harris Air is grounding its Sitka-based fleet after 20 years of commercial flights. The move leaves some Southeast communities with only one option for commuter flights.

Scott Harris started running his namesake airline in the 1990s. Now the president of the Sitka-based business says the last passenger flights will be September 15.

“The airline part of our business will come to a close for now,” said Harris.

He says there are a lot of reasons. One has to do with finding qualified pilots. He once had half a dozen on his payroll, now he’s laying off the last two.

“The pilot shortage is a real thing. Looking for experienced staff to come into this region and fly the aircraft that we have in the environment they’re put to… It’s not easy anymore to find people anymore, let’s put it that way,” he said.

Harris says he was recruiting pilots from as far away as Tennessee. They’d work two weeks on, two weeks off and Harris says paid for housing and travel.

His smaller twin-engine planes also weren’t as profitable as larger competitors.

Robert Venables heads Southeast Conference⁠—a regional economic forum. He says small businesses across Southeast are struggling as demographics change.

“We’ve seen population contraction and with that goes the buying power and everything that makes it challenging for businesses to grow and succeed,” he said.

Harris Air’s destinations had included Sitka, Juneau and Prince of Wales Island. And its departure will leave Haines and Gustavus with only one air carrier.

Alaska Seaplanes manager Carl Ramseth says the airline will boost capacity if need be.

Small airlines often come and go in this region. Wings shuttered in 2017 and L.A.B. Flying Services ran flights out of Haines until 2008.

Harris says it was a great pleasure to serve the region.

“It’s leaving a community, that’s kind of important to us. So that’s kind of the sad part for Harris Air–other than the fact we have to pull away,” said Harris.

Harris says the airline may not be gone for good. Over the next year he says he’ll be looking at trying to bring back passenger and cargo flights. Until then he’s keeping the maintenance side of the business open in Juneau and Sitka.