The ferry Columbia transits the Inside Passage in 2011. (KFSK file photo)

The Alaska Marine Highway Service is going back to flat rates—at least for this winter. CoastAlaska’s Angela Denning reports:

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced Sept. 9 that it would stop dynamic pricing this winter. Dynamic pricing means that as seats fill up, the more expensive they get. It’s a common practice with airlines; the closer you book to departure, the higher the price. The pricing formula has been in place in the Alaska Marine Highway Service for the last two years.

But DOT says the ferry service will move back to flat rates this winter.

DOT was unavailable for comment on Monday.

Pausing dynamic pricing is part of a new program called “Reimagining AMHS Program,” that the state announced in a press release.

The state says the program will bring more transparency, flat rates, and increased communication about the marine highway service.

The program looks to improve service over time in three phases. The first phase, “stabilization” looks to provide reliable service by increasing crew and vessel maintenance. The phase will include weekly updates to the public.

The second phase, “recovery” looks to add services while monitoring reliability.

The third phase, “full steam ahead” expects services to be restored and growth to happen.

Last year, a statewide advisory board to the state’s ferry system was created by the Alaska Legislature. The Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board has been meeting every two weeks since February.

Wanetta Ayers is the vice chair of the board. She says the board wasn’t aware of the state’s new program but she supports it.

“I welcome this because I think it is a move towards a more customer-centric service,” Ayers said, “that will take into account the needs of customers as well as well as how decisions and service interruptions and other unanticipated things may fall on the customer.”

She says the board will continue to work on a long-range plan and a short-term plan following that. She says the board needs to identify exactly where they want the Alaska Marine Highway Service to be in the years to come and will continue advising the state’s DOT.

As for going to flat rate ferry rates this winter, Ayers supports it.

“I think dynamic pricing has not been a very effective tool for the system on a year round basis,” she said. “I think pausing dynamic pricing is a good thing. And I think an overall pricing strategy needs to be revisited.”

Governor Dunleavy vetoed funding for the ferry service during his tenure: $5 million in 2019, $13 million in 2020, and $8.5 million last year.

The draft operating schedule for the winter ferry service was released in August.

The final winter schedule is expected this week.