By Joey Gerardi
Trip Report – Alaska Airlines Milk Run Flight 61
The Alaska Airlines Milk Run: A must on any avgeek’s bucket list.
The route consists of many different variations from the same nine cities. My previous day had me on flight AS65 in a total of five different cities within six hours: Seattle, Wash. in addition to Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Juneau, Alaska, the trip report for which can be found here. From Juneau, the aircraft and flight AS65 continued onto Anchorage without me.
On this second day, I would take flight AS61, which would have me in four cities all of which are located within the state of Alaska: Juneau, Yakutat, Cordova and finally Anchorage. My aircraft and the flight number began the day in Seattle and flew nonstop to Juneau, where it then picked me up and brought me to two small communities on its way up to its final destination of Anchorage.
After a very restful night in Juneau and some plane spotting, it was time to head back to the airport for my flight. The flight had a scheduled departure time of 10:45 a.m. local time, although not knowing how busy it would be, I arrived 2 hours prior, which turned out to be way too early.
I arrived in a virtually empty terminal and check-in area and opted to use one of the kiosks to check in for my flight. Just like the previous day, it had my final destination, Anchorage, as my final destination and the stopover cities in much smaller print underneath it.
I saw a couple of people at the ticket counters with multiple huge boxes and other assorted items and wondered how people afford to fly items this large in and out of these smaller communities so often. It turns out that Alaska Airlines offers a special club that is part of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Program, its called “Club49” because Alaska is the 49th state.
This special program is only available to residents of Alaska and offers special benefits that are very useful to the residents of the state who use the flights to get much-needed supplies back home and who also use the flights to get around the state. Every member gets two completely free checked bags when traveling to/from or within Alaska, 30% off one-way travel within the state, and also $49 cargo shipping within the state of Alaska. There are many other benefits to the program, but you’d have to live in Alaska to learn about them.
I then proceeded up through security which even offered a TSA-PreCheck line, and although I was almost the only passenger in line it helped not taking out all of my camera gear. The security experience was a lot different than at Seattle-Tacoma the day before.
Once through security, I entered a very empty gate area, and as it turns out this was the first departure of the day out of Juneau for Alaska Airlines. As a matter of fact, it was the only departure in the morning at all, as the next departure wouldn’t be until 2:00 p.m. that afternoon.
Same as in Seattle, the boarding screen at the gate showed the destination as well as the cities the flight number would continue onto.
At this point I had a lot of time to relax before the flight, but as more passengers started to come into the gate area most recognized each other and started talking and laughing together. This flight is how people come into the larger cities to get supplies and items not available in the small cities they live in.
I had a very nice conversation with a group of passengers about their experiences living along the Milk Run, and even non-aviation industry folks that lived in the cities referred to the routes as “The 62 Milk Run” or “The 65 Milk Run” and so on. Most of the people living in the cities have even memorized all the Milk Run routes and to which flight numbers they belong. I talked with them about how they have shipped furniture, chicken feed, groceries, housing materials, and other items on this flight. And also the fact that a lot of the people from these communities make the trip on a nearly monthly basis.
One of the couples I met even run a surfing shop in Yakutat called “Icy Waves” which was featured on CBS many years ago and now hosts surfers from around the world. It was very interesting listening to them talk about how locals essentially plan their daily lives around this flight, from something as simple as when the mail might arrive to more complicated tasks like making a flight to have medical procedures done in the larger hub cities. I even met someone who was traveling from Sitka, Alaska to Kodiak, Alaska to see a family member they haven’t seen since Covid began, but because of the nature of the route, they had to make five flights to get there.
Just as the stories started to get more interesting, the aircraft landed and the sound of thrust reversers echoed around the mountains surrounding the airport. The aircraft for today’s journey would be N622AS, another one of Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-700’s.
The aircraft pulled into the gate and the passengers got off as normal. As we got ready to board the gate agents informed us that there would be no service for any of the three flights of the journey up to Anchorage. Boarding began with the normal pre-boarding for people requiring extra time, followed by an announcement of “Boarding Group A”, after nobody made a move to the gate they then announced, “If anyone wants to go to Yakutat your welcome to come aboard”.
I enjoyed the casual nature of these flights, and some of the passengers even recognized the gate agents and began having conversations with them. Everyone knows someone along these types of flights, they give off such a welcoming and bright atmosphere despite not being able to see facial expressions.
Just like the previous day, I took my seat in seat 10F, and by this time it had begun raining which is a common occurrence in the mornings according to the Juneau locals.
For this first flight to Yakutat, there are only a mere 37 passengers, but I was told that the flights do become full during the height of the Alaskan fishing season. For this flight, I did have a seatmate on the aisle but we were allowed to spread out once everyone had boarded and they chose to sit elsewhere.
The process from gate to takeoff was the same as every other Alaska Airlines flight, safety demonstration proceeded by a short taxi to the runway. Being the only aircraft moving on the airfield we were immediately cleared for takeoff, and following a short takeoff roll, we rocketed into the skies for our rather short flight to Yakutat.
Today is another example of had the weather been clear, the views would have been stunning as we fly along the Alaska Gulf Coastline for this entire day. But for this trip, a thick cloud layer covered the skies and that was all passengers were able to see.
Once we got up to cruising altitude, I went to the forward cabin to inquire to the flight attendants about getting some pictures on the ramp at each of the stops and was responded to with an immediate, “Absolutely not,” and told me that if I stepped one foot outside the plane I wouldn’t be allowed back on. I did tell them about what had happened the previous day, but the answer was still no. This is one of the examples of me not getting so lucky with the flight crew. Technically speaking we aren’t allowed on the ramp anyways, but there is no harm in asking.
We then began descending into Yakutat and the rest of the flight was normal, flight attendants went around to collect garbage and they took their seats for landing. Due to the clouds in the area, I couldn’t see anything until we had almost reached the ground.
Yakutat was another Essential Air Service, or EAS, community and just like the other two EAS cities the previous day I wouldn’t have any cellular service here either. It was interesting being so connected to the world on the airplane, yet so disconnected with no contact with the outside world on my phone.
The landing was smooth after the short 41-minute flight, and we backtracked on the runway to the terminal building. As we pulled into Yakutat I could already see an entire forklift of fish from the Yakutat Seafood company ready to be loaded onto the aircraft.
After pulling into the gate the passengers disembarking got up and walked off the plane, and with them, I saw multiple individuals carrying fishing poles. I was told that even during the off-season, at least one person is carrying a fishing pole off the plane in Yakutat.
Once everyone had gotten off I headed up to the front of the aircraft to inquire if I may be able to get off, despite the “no” from the flight attendant, I figured there would be no harm in asking one of the ramp crew. After flagging one of them down and talking to them, they said I couldn’t get off but I could go as far as the top of the mobile airstairs, it wasn’t far but it was better than nothing.
Just like in Petersburg and Wrangell the previous day, Alaska Airlines owns this terminal building versus renting space from the airport. The building was also at least twice the size of the buildings the previous day, but still on the small side, and they also had a blue appearance instead of white and green like in Wrangell and Petersburg. After getting a few pictures I was ushered back inside by the flight attendant and I headed to the back galley to talk with those flight attendants.
After a very nice conversation with the aft galley flight attendants, it was time to head to my seat for the flight onto Cordova as all the passengers had already boarded. For this second flight up to Cordova, there would only be 33-passengers on board. Safety demonstration, engine start, and quick taxi to the runway for the second to last flight of my trip.
By this time, more clouds had begun to roll in and it had started raining again. I can’t emphasize this enough — do the trip during the summer months, and your weather is a lot more likely to be clear skies. Once again with so few people on this 737-700, we quickly took into the skies for this leg of the trip quickly making it up to our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet.
The ground below was completely covered by clouds at cruising altitude, but along the route, the tallest mountains did pop out which was certainly nice to see, especially with nothing else but clouds around.
As we approached Cordova, the clouds began to disperse, which was exciting as this did happen the previous way in Wrangell and led to some stunning photographs. The ground quickly came into view, and I could see snow still covering the ground below us, also coming into view was the Copper River Highway, which is the single road that runs through Cordova connecting the people of these communities. Despite the word “highway” in the name, the road doesn’t lead to the outside world, connect to the main road system of Alaska, or is even paved as most of the road is dirt or rocks.
There is even a section of this road that was washed out by erosion back in 2018, was never fixed and has plans to remain closed indefinitely as there are little to no plans to have it fixed. The highway isn’t even plowed or maintained past mile point 13 in the winter and snowy months, meaning people living beyond that could be stranded for months at a time if they don’t prepare properly.
It is eye-opening seeing how people in these small communities live and how something as basic as road plowing is sometimes overlooked if there isn’t enough need for it. As we got closer the clouds didn’t completely clear, but enough so that I was able to see some scenery.
Despite the low cloud layer, it was still cool seeing glaciers and the mountains, I can only imagine the views one might have seen on a completely clear day. Once we landed in Cordova we turned around in the middle of the runway, just like at every stop, and we backtracked to the terminal.
Once parked, I noticed that Cordova was almost identical to Yakutat — same blue terminal building and no cell service. Alaska Airlines owns the building, and Cordova is also an EAS city. The only difference from an airport standpoint was that the words Cordova were on the building.
Same as in Yakutat, in Cordova I stood on the top step of the stairs, which is better than nothing. From what I could see, the scenery was very similar between Yakutat and Cordova, although there was more cloud cover in Yakutat so it is hard to know for sure.
After a nice chat with the flight attendants, I headed back to my seat for the final time on this journey. Instead of seafood like in Yakutat, here in Cordova, I saw roughly eight to 10 animals crates with what looked like huskies in them get loaded onto the aircraft.
For this final leg of the journey up to Anchorage, there would be 48 passengers. By this time, the rain had finally stopped and we started our engines for the final leg to Alaska’s biggest city. It was a quick taxi out to the runway, as we took off I could see the river and single road into town getting smaller and smaller before it finally disappeared.
We proceeded to climb to cruising altitude, and the flight went on as normal minus the in-flight service as the flight would end up being just under 40-minutes. The clouds were again covering the sky for most of the flight but started to clear once we approached Anchorage.
As we grew closer to Anchorage I began thinking about how my trip went. Despite the cloudy weather at most of the stops, it was a fun and exciting trip, of course, clearer weather would’ve been better but it was still a great trip nonetheless and I plan on making it again someday but during the summer months. I talked with a lot of nice and interesting people from the crew members of the flights to the people living in the communities, although I will never know exactly what it feels like living here, it was interesting getting a glimpse into their daily lives living along the Milk Run and how vital it is to the survival of the communities.
After coming out of the clouds I could see the airport off to the right side of the aircraft, we continued past it and made a right turn to approach from the west, and landed at Alaska’s largest airport of Anchorage.
After landing we taxied to Gate C1 and the engines shut off for the final time on my whirlwind trip along the Alaskan Southeast and Gulf Coast. After getting off the aircraft I noticed a sign for an observation area, I followed the sign and received a wonderful above view of the aircraft I had just gotten off and watched all of the cargo get offloaded for destinations around the country as well as within the state of Alaska.
While us AvGeeks ride on the Milk Run for enjoyment and adventure, this route is just a fact of life for the people living in these small communities and doesn’t feel any more special to them than a city bus does to us.
To see a video account of the northern section of the Milk Run, the trip report can be found below.