Alaska Sea Plane Ride

Alaska’s Lost Cruise Season

It was gearing up to be the biggest season ever. 

For years, cruise passengers have disembarked their ship in Juneau, Alaska only to hop on board one of Holly Johnson’s seaplanes at the Juneau waterfront for the ride of a lifetime. Johnson, President of Wings Airways & the Taku Glacier Lodge, was riding high after a record 2019 season where her business was even named “Top Alaska Attraction” by Porthole Cruise Editor-in-Chief Bill Panoff for the 3rd straight year. 

However, 2020 had other plans. 

Since the global pause in cruise operation, Holly and her team of experienced seaplane pilots have yet to fly a single client over the 1,500 square miles of Juneau Icefield and that’s left her business in a tough situation during what would usually be the busiest time of year. 

Seaplane Tour Alaska

Photo: A Wings Airways Seaplane Tour

Her story, along with countless other local businesses in Alaska, is getting lost in the shuffle of major cruise line announcements and global travel bans. We forget there is a huge number of people around the world not affiliated with a cruise line, but who rely on them for their financial well-being. 

Our business does not exist in the year 2020. We will have no business. Not one paying customer

For Holly and her staff, the realization that COVID-19 could impact her business began early on in March when it seemed like only part of the season would be lost.

“It was devastating and heartbreaking. The day we had to call our staff and tell them that we could no longer hire them for the summer and the day we had to let some of our year-round people go was probably the most devastating. As we went on, we realized there just was not going to be a season here for us this year and it was really just unbelievable,” Holly said. 

Alaska Seaplane Tour

Photo: A Wings Airways seaplane

Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report stating the unemployment rate in Alaska doubled in June 2020 compared to June 2019 and it’s not hard to draw a parallel to the lack of cruise ship visits. 

We asked Holly if the majority of her business came from cruise ships calling on Juneau and she made it clear; at the end of the day, without cruisers, there is no Wings Airways & Taku Lodge. 

“Oh yes definitely. Cruise ships and cruisers. It’s a majority of it, we’re nothing without them. So our business does not exist in the year 2020,” she said. “We will have no business. Not one paying customer.” 

Rather than let the downtime go to waste, Holly explained what her team did to start getting ready for what will undoubtedly be a very important 2021 season. 

“Once we figured out that our finances were stable and cut wherever we could to survive, the focus really turned on 2021. I think for everyone, hope is so important and we put all of our energy, time and creativity into continuously making our product better,” she said. “Our life right now is really talking to guests, everyday we’re still getting calls from guests and we’re talking to our cruise line partners and internally, we’re just going through every aspect of the operation from safety first down to the experience itself and what we can do better.” 

Photo: Taku Glacier Lodge

One of the biggest challenges facing the business when cruising does come back is how to handle new COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Holly and her team had to ask themselves what their business might look like with those kinds of guidelines in place. 

“We’ve definitely spent time thinking about what our protocols and what our changes are going to be and what we can do with our operation to keep it safe and keep our guests safe and our employees safe. Really right now, there are so many unknowns that we have our eye on the other destinations that are starting before us,” she said. “The cruise lines have been an incredible source of inspiration because they’ve dug so deep into how you maintain safety for guests.” 

Planning for 2021 helps keep the mood positive, something Holly believes will help get them through until their customers begin filing off the ship and onto the Juneau waterfront once more. The 100th anniversary of Taku Lodge is just around the corner in 2023 and Holly says she plans on being here to celebrate with all their guests! 

The best thing you can do to help is start booking your vacation for 2021. If you’ve never cruised to Alaska or taken a seaplane ride over the glaciers and wilderness, get your trip on the books and help give yourself and the people of Alaska something to look forward to!