By Leigh Armstrong
It’s easy to see where the Alaska Department of Transportation is coming from with its institution of dynamic pricing for state ferry travel. Just like when booking air travel, the scarcer a ticket becomes, the more expensive it gets for the consumer.
The Alaska Marine Highway System is applying a simple supply-and-demand rule to ticketing. The problem is the point of reference. The ferry system is nothing like an airline or cruise line and shouldn’t be run like one.
That’s not to say the ferries don’t have similarities with a commercial airline. They’re both used by consumers to get from one point to another. The difference comes from AMHS being a necessity, rather than a luxury.
For the vast majority of travelers, air travel is a convenience. It’s fast, relatively cheap and allows a person to focus on the destination they’re heading, whether for work or pleasure. If someone can’t fly, they’ll have other options. Granted, it’s hard to think of driving cross-country as a viable option to hopping on a six-hour flight, but it is an option. While Skagway is lucky to have a road out, there are numerous Southeast communities that don’t have that option.
Want to take a vacation during the winter but live in Gustavus? Your options are limited to the ferry or boarding a small commercial flight out. If you choose to go with the flight and the weather is bad, you better hope that you can reschedule your entire trip.
What it gets down to is that the ferries are, at their core, a government service. Much like its name implies, the ferry is a highway and it should be managed like one.
Throughout the country, there are plenty of tolled highways. The Garden State Parkway in particular comes to mind, as it has a lot in common with the AMHS. The turnpike in New Jersey is a toll road that charges travelers by the distance traveled, or more if they’re traveling at peak times. In addition, many of New Jersey’s small towns are extremely hard to access without the use of the parkway.
That’s a form of dynamic pricing that could be a better fit for Alaska’s ferries. Rather than charging more as the capacity of ship decreases, charge more based on the time of year. Make it apparent that people are going to be paying more if they travel at that time. Don’t surprise people with a price that is fluid based on how early they book.
There’s another aspect from traditional rubber-on-the-road highways that the ferry system could borrow in its pricing structure. In Florida, there’s a service called SunPass. It’s a small transponder you put on your car that automatically deducts your toll as you pass through a gate. Since you save the state the cost of toll collectors by doing so, you get a small amount taken off each toll. It’s not much, but enough to make buying a SunPass an easy decision.
Imagine a variation of that for frequent ferry riders. Rather than buying a ticket every time, they would have a pass they load $50 into at the beginning of the year that gives them a 10 percent discount on tickets. The idea alone could boost people who take trips on the ferry to local Alaska spots to explore their own state, rather than traveling to Juneau to fly out.
What’s clear is that the state of Alaska views the ferry as a luxury service to its residents, which is why they’re boosting rates to those unfortunate enough to buy late. A better plan to raise rates and make more money by the service would be to give a flat percentage increase across the board. It still wouldn’t be popular, but it would make it a lot easier for families to plan on using the ferry. While ferry system management may be thinking that more people will book sooner, rather than later, it may instead drive some communities that don’t rely on the ferry away from the service.
With being a state-run program and a service to Alaskans, the ferry system needs to stop looking to airlines as a model for its pricing.