Is it safe to fly in Alaska?
That may sound like a rhetorical question to a frequent traveler. But all eyes are on a crash in Dutch Harbor last week, when a PenAir plane skidded off the end of the runway, resulting in one death. PenAir is owned by the Ravn Air Group. Flights from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor are marketed by Alaska Airlines. Alaska and Ravn have not yet resumed the flights to Dutch Harbor.
“Flying is the safest thing we have,” said Will Johnson of Fairbanks. “But we could make it better.”
Johnson owned a commuter airline, Yute Air, between 1990 and 2000. He also ran a flight school in Bethel for four years and has survived two plane crashes.
“As a passenger, be careful who you get in the plane with,” he cautions.
The PenAir accident is the latest to grab the attention of travelers. Back in May, there were two fatal accidents with Taquan Air, based in Ketchikan. Last summer K2 Aviation had a crash with fatalities on Denali.
Last month, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board convened a rare roundtable discussion to address aviation safety in Anchorage. The daylong session, attended by many of the state’s air carriers, focused on accident statistics and possible solutions in four areas: training, risk management, technology and infrastructure.
The NTSB forum was designed to address safety issues for so-called “Part 135” operators, or those air carriers who take up to nine passengers per flight. The Part 135 operators represent the majority of flights in Alaska. But airlines like Alaska and PenAir operate under more stringent “Part 121” rules.
Mark Stigar is an aviation safety auditor with 40 years of flying experience. In the Army National Guard, he oversaw flight facilities around Alaska and at Fort Richardson. After getting out of the military he had a safety consulting business and worked as a lead safety auditor for the Medallion Foundation, an FAA-funded aviation safety organization that is no longer in operation.
“When people climb on a plane, they think they’re getting on board an Alaska Airlines jet,” he said. “There’s this blind trust that all pilots are created equal. And they’re not.”
As an aviation safety auditor, Stigar worked with operators as large as Alaska Airlines, all the way down to single-plane operations.
“About 80% of accidents are caused by human factors,” he said. “It’s just like leaving a cup of coffee on top of your car, but the results are much bigger. Good, conscientious people can make those sorts of errors. We’re all human.”
After decades of flying, Stigar says he’s a “fair weather flyer” now. To get to his cabin in Iliamna, he favors a company with a pressurized aircraft that can fly over the weather in Lake Clark Pass.
“Flying in Alaska is so much better than it used to be,” said Stigar. Some of the improvements, he said, came from the insurance companies who had to settle expensive lawsuits.
Aviation safety covers a broad spectrum, too. Witness the grounding of entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Investigators and inspectors still are working to resolve the safety problems that led to two fatal crashes.
There’s also the matter of airplanes being used as terrorist weapons. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, spawned an entirely new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration.
Whether it’s unruly passengers, an abundance of alcohol, someone who tries to open the exit door for fresh air or spilled cleaning fluid that renders crew members unconscious, there are plenty of hazards in the air.
Some safety issues come out of having too many people in too small of a space for too long. Usually, those issues center on larger jets. Aside from Alaska Airlines and a handful of other airlines flying travelers out-of-state, Alaskans count on smaller planes.
This type of small-plane flying in Alaska is baked into our lifestyle. Many Alaskans count on airplanes to get to work, get to the doctor’s office or go to school.
Travelers must rely on regulatory agencies like the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration to do the necessary oversight to ensure safe operations.
Still, it’s right to be concerned about the integrity of your air carrier. It’s appropriate to know the airline’s operational reputation and its safety record. You should get more involved than when you’re shuffling aboard a big jet headed to Hawaii.
In a small plane, pay attention when the pilot is giving your safety briefing. It’s important to be aware of the weather and to dress appropriately. It’s crucial to know where the fire extinguisher is as well as any survival gear and emergency locator devices. You should know how to get out of the aircraft in an emergency.
On a helicopter trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, my pilot told me: “You’re part of the crew today.”
“Keep your eyes open for other traffic and obstacles in the air,” he said.
Then I listened to him methodically go over his pre-flight checklist. I’m sure he’d done it many times before, but he read the list out loud as he completed each step.
I felt safer on that flight, knowing he was paying close attention to ensure a safe flight.
Tomorrow, I’ll get on another plane — and I’ll be listening closely to the safety briefing.
“If these aviation safety issues were easy, they would have been fixed,” said Stigar.