- Anchorage-based Alaska Helicopter Tours experienced a 250% boom in 2021 sales compared to 2019.
- Hiring enough ground staff was the company’s biggest challenge during the surge in demand.
- The operator is expecting a strong 2022 season, with presales already doubling 2021.
The pandemic wrecked the tourism industry in the northern-most US state of Alaska, but it’s seeing a speedy recovery with one tourism company more than doubling its 2019 sales this year.
Anchorage-based Alaska Helicopter Tours is a flightseeing company that flies adventurous customers across the beautiful state, offering aerial views of places like Denali National Park, as well as glacier hiking and dogsled tours.
Like many other companies across the country, the operator was a victim of the coronavirus pandemic, having temporarily lost its allowance to serve tourists. However, it was fortunate to be able to operate as an essential service flying for the local electric company on behalf of its parent organization, Alpha Aviation.
Following strict health and safety protocols as a utility service, Alaska Helicopter Tours was granted a waiver at the end of March 2020 by the state’s Congress to offer flight tours to local Alaskans. According to the company’s Director of Operations, Jennifer Hanks, who was born and raised in the state, the service helped keep the business going.
“We could offer something for locals to do to get out of their house,” Hanks told Insider. “We were one of the first companies to be up and running and it was really nice to be able to open our doors to local Alaskans.”
While the company was able to continue business during the pandemic, which was a rarity for tourism operators, it did not expect a huge travel surge in 2021. But, by January, it was clear Alaska Helicopter Tours was in for a big year.
“We thought it was going to be pandemic style with not many employees and not many helicopters on the tourism side, but we ended up having the craziest, busiest year ever,” Hanks told Insider. “2019 was our busiest season and we are already two and half times over that in sales for 2021. And, for 2022, our presales are already double what they were this year.”
Hanks explained that the surge comes from people desperate for a vacation and finally being able to travel again. She said a chunk of their guests were big families, and she believes that the airlines offering deals on flights helped people visit the state at a lower cost.
With the spike in sales came challenges, including finding enough labor and resources to meet demand. Before the pandemic, the company operated a fleet of three helicopters, including two Robinson R44s and one A-Star Helicopter, but had to add one more of each to handle the surge. The company also plans to grow the fleet event more due to the booming 2022 presales.
Though the company’s business is growing, Alaska Helicopter Tours is no stranger to the labor shortage. Hanks told Insider that the company’s biggest hurdle during the surge was hiring ground staff.
“Just like everywhere in the US, we could not find people because the hiring pool was very small and a lot of people were on unemployment,” she explained. “A lot of Alaska’s employees are also J1 [international] students, but they couldn’t enter the US, so we did a lot of local advertising and got set up on Indeed.”
According to Hanks, finding pilots was not an issue because having “Alaska time” for flight is a big benefit for their resumes.
Going into 2022, Alaska Helicopter Tours is cautious about the new COVID-19 Omicron variant, but it still expects a strong season.
“Realistically, the 2022 sales will be about 30% above what we did this year,” Hanks told Insider.