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North Slope company 'bus' is a plane

Aviation is vital to operations in Alaska oil fields

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Capt. Jim Adams used to fly radio guys around Southern California in a single-engine Cessna. They'd check out the traffic jams on the freeways first, then swing over the beaches to check out the waves. For the surfer dudes.

That was before Adams landed a flying job for an oil company, and his career took off up north. Now he pilots jets between Anchorage and the North Slope oil fields.

He's been flying on the Slope, in fact, almost since the first barrel of crude oil flowed down the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline in the summer of 1977.

On a recent Friday afternoon flight, he carried another load of passengers — oil field workers, none of whom paid a nickel in airfare — from the state airport at Deadhorse down to Anchorage.

It's a stunning route for pilots, over the lake-pocked tundra, across the shark's teeth of the Brooks Range, over the ponderous Yukon River, past Mount McKinley and its sidekick Foraker punching through the clouds, then down to murky Cook Inlet and the Anchorage international airport, which from the cockpit looks besieged with oversized mosquitoes all looking to land on the same spot.

"We don't get bored," said Adams, at the controls with first officer Dennis Parrish. "We like working for the people we work for."

Those people are ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., and the contractors that work for the oil companies at Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and the other North Slope oil fields.

Adams manages the small fleet of planes that make up Shared Services Aviation, a joint unit of operator ConocoPhillips and BP, the state's two biggest oil producers.

The aviation wing is a vital cog in the enormous endeavor of North Slope oil production. Each week it hauls thousands of engineers, drillers, tool-pushers, electricians, mechanics, security officers and many other specialists to and from the remote job site.

By all appearances, flying with Adams is like riding on any commercial airline. Passengers must reserve their seats, and they board and disembark through a regular airport gate. Flight attendants walk past rows of seats occupied mostly by burly men and announce on the public address: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Shared Services Flight 324."

But this is not an airline, as defined under federal regulations.

"This is the company bus. We just take people to work," Parrish said.

Work on the North Slope is different. Most people stay on the cold, typically dark Slope for two or three weeks at a time, and when it's time to board that jet for home and family, it's always a fine flight.

"There's very seldom an empty seat on this flight," said Bill Streever, a BP environmental scientist, as he boarded the Friday jet to Anchorage.

It's easy to tell which direction a Shared Services plane is headed. Flights headed north to the oil fields, where alcohol is forbidden, are dry, while southbound flights offer two drinks per passenger, only a buck each.

ConocoPhillips and BP believe that operating their own planes, even though they don't generate revenue, is most cost-effective. Still, there's much business for many commercial carriers on the Slope, including Alaska Airlines, Northern Air Cargo and Frontier Flying Service.

A now defunct company, Wien Air Alaska, pioneered jet service to the Slope beginning in 1971, and it once carried much of the load for the oil companies, Adams said.

BP put its own Boeing 727 into service in 1974, and Arco, which sold out to what is now ConocoPhillips, was operating two more 727s by 1984.

Shared Services Aviation was formed in 1991 as the oil companies, facing a decline in North Slope oil production, looked to partner where they could to trim costs. Today, the oil companies are operating a smaller, but more modern, aviation unit, Adams said.

The three 727s have yielded to two Boeing 737s, each with a passenger capacity of 111. Both are leased from Wells Fargo Bank, one by ConocoPhillips and the other by BP. He declined to reveal the overall budget for Shared Services.

The aviation unit also has two propeller-driven planes, a deHavilland Twin Otter and a CASA 212 that stay busy hopping around the Slope's mostly gravel airstrips.

Passenger and employee counts also have dropped, Adams said. ConocoPhillips and BP once had a combined 120 people devoted to aviation, but only 62 now, including 22 pilots.

Jet passengers have slipped to about 4,000 a week from 5,000 two years ago, Adams said.

Automation on the Slope is a big reason, he said. With new technology, it doesn't take as many people to run an oil field.

It's rare, but the planes also have been used over the years to evacuate injured workers, or to rush up spare parts for use in the oil fields.

The jets, built in 1986 and maintained by Alaska Airlines, make about 20 flights weekly between Anchorage, Fairbanks, Deadhorse and the Kuparuk airstrip. The smaller planes make about 100 flights a week.