When you approach the East Ramp of the Fairbanks International Airport by car, you pass through a gateway of scrapped airplane parts donated by local pilots. For pilots or passengers on chartered flights, the arch is a symbolic start to their journey into rural Alaska. Unlike with major air carriers, most of the flights that leave from this half of the airport are destined for small villages or wilderness areas with only a handful of people and a very specific purpose in mind.
This ramp is reserved for pilots with their own planes, guide companies that lead wilderness trips to the arctic, charters that fly film crews and teams of scientists, and air carriers in the business of delivering groceries, mail, and other goods to isolated communities.
One of those companies is Northern Alaska Tour Company (NATC), a “vertically integrated hospitality organization along the Dalton Highway,” according to Matt Atkinson (Matt doesn’t like formal titles, but he’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company).
Matt’s company transports guests who book adventure tours with NATC, either independently or as a land excursion with major cruise companies. NATC also transports commuters going into or out of villages, which is a common function of many air services on the East Ramp.
“We’re pretty unique in that we have tour operations,” Matt acknowledges. He and his neighbors on the ramp transport mail and freight into their aircraft as well as passengers of all sorts.
“We do intersect quite a bit with the film sector,” Matt says, referencing a variety of reality TV shows based in Alaska. The company has also flown Alaska State Troopers to small villages, and families or friends attending a bush funeral.
Matt and NATC work with an average of fifty guests per day in the summer and offer day trips plus multi-day excursions to places like the Arctic Circle, Anaktuvuk Pass, Denali, and even the Arctic Ocean.
Occasionally, if he needs more planes than are available at NATC, Matt works closely with his neighbors at Wright Air Service or Frontier Era to arrange for extra flights. This kind of cooperation is not unusual on the East Ramp, where the day-to-day must shift to adapt to the itinerary of clients.
One component of NATC operations is scheduled passenger flights into and out of villages that are not economical to serve in the free market, yet require regular air service for the benefit of residents. These routes are called “essential air service” and are subsidized by the state of Alaska.
“Of the twelve villages we go to on our commuter side, five are essential air service members,” Matt says. Air services bid on the rights to serve these communities and collect payment by the government. Matt points out that a successful bid often relies on community support, so companies are smart to work closely with villages and build up a rapport. NATC tour operations have helped with this, as the company has been taking guests to many of these villages for 25 years.
On the second floor of the terminal, directly in the center of the eating and drinking area is vantage point for the East Ramp. Looking to the south across the runway from the main terminal, you can see a string of hangars and small aircraft that make up the East Ramp.