Alaska News

Company involved in midair collision near Ketchikan suspends cruise-line air tours

One of the companies involved in Monday’s deadly midair collision near Ketchikan is suspending all pre-booked flightseeing tours for cruise ship passengers. And a second, family run company in the crash said it has canceled operations.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long the suspension by Taquan Air, operator of the de Havilland DHC-3 Otter, would last. The Otter collided with a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver operated by Mountain Air Service.

The floatplanes carried passengers from the same cruise ship: the Royal Princess, which docked in Ketchikan that morning. Five cruise-ship passengers died in the collision, as well as the pilot of Mountain Air Service, Randy Sullivan, who owned the small company with his wife.

All Mountain Air Service “operations have been canceled,” according to a statement from the company to the Ketchikan Daily News. The company took down its web site following the crash.

The U.S. Forest Service that manages the Misty Fjords National Monument had permitted both companies to bring visitors onto monument land during flightseeing tours that often stop in the wilderness area for lunch.

When the collision occurred Taquan was returning to Ketchikan after conducting a flightseeing, shoreside excursion to Misty Fjords. It’s likely Mountain Air Service had made a similar flightseeing trip, said Paul Robbins Jr., a spokesman with the Tongass National Forest that includes monument lands.

[These are some of the victims in deadly Alaska midair collision]

The Forest Service will be conducting an internal review starting in two weeks to ensure the companies followed operation plans and permitting procedures, such as insurance or passenger-limit requirements, Robbins said. The Forest Service does not have regulatory authority over flights above the monument, just visits on the lands, he said.

If procedures and laws are violated or evidence shows a “significant threat to public health or safety,” a permit can be revoked, he said.

“If we can find a way to improve the process in any way, that’s what we’re looking for,” Robbins said.

Ten people were injured after the planes collided, some of them seriously. All four survivors who had been flown to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center remained in “satisfactory” condition Thursday, the hospital said.

The crash killed everyone in the Beaver: four cruise passengers and Sullivan.

Taquan’s pilot and nine passengers survived. One passenger died trapped in the plane, which sank after coming to a rest in the water, floats up.

[NTSB: One floatplane descended more than 500 feet before midair collision that killed 5 cruise passengers and pilot]

The crash is at least the fifth fatal crash involving cruise ship passengers on air tour flights in Alaska since a Taquan crash in 2007 that killed five.

Taquan has suspended all flightseeing trips booked in advance through cruise lines, the company said Thursday. The action was taken “(o)ut of respect for cruise line guests still in the hospital and their families,” according to a Taquan statement emailed by the PR firm Thompson and Co. in Anchorage.

Princess separately decided to suspend Taquan flightseeing tours for its passengers at least until later this month. A Princess spokesman said they also contract with Misty Fjords Air & Outfitters in Ketchikan.

The Forest Service has issued permits to nine air operators in Ketchikan, including Taquan and Mountain Air Service, to bring visitors onto monument land. Essentially, a total of 12,000 visitors are allowed each summer and fall season.

The Princess passengers who flew on Mountain Air Service had booked their flights independently of Princess.

Taquan, owned by Venture Travel LLC, suspended all flights after Monday’s crash and canceled any flightseeing excursions.

Taquan resumed scheduled and chartered flights on Wednesday. It resumed flightseeing tours for direct booked and third-party booked customers on Thursday.

The decision to continue to suspend cruise ship flight tours was a mutual one “which Taquan Air and Princess are working closely together on,” the air service said in a statement. Princess decided this week to suspend service with Taquan at least until May 24.

It’s not clear just what the date those flights will resume.

“Taquan and Princess are working together to determine the most appropriate time,” the company said.

Meanwhile, crews working with the National Transportation Safety Board started working to establish how the planes came together at 3,300 feet.

Both planes have been recovered and moved to a secure site in Ketchikan for examination and documentation by investigators, NTSB said Thursday afternoon.

A team of investigators planned to remain in Ketchikan for a total of 5 to 7 days after arriving Tuesday. They hope to interview crash survivors, as well as examine the wreckage as they begin to establish how the planes came together at 3,300 feet. The Taquan Otter descended about 500 feet just before they collided.

The skies over Ketchikan are busy with planes during the congested summer season, when the city of just over 8,000 swells with hordes of passengers coming off giant cruise ships that dock there, sometimes six in one day.

The city expected a new record level of 1.2 million people to come into Ketchikan on cruise ships this summer. Numerous air taxis ferry passengers to attractions including bear-viewing areas, harbor tours and Misty Fjords National Monument.