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Aviation

Regular air service suspended at Unalaska after fatal crash, stranding some travelers

A Penair plane that flew from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor, pictured off the runway at the Unalaska-Dutch Harbor airport on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (Jennifer Wynn)

Regular flights to and from Unalaska, a place that relies on air travel, are suspended in the aftermath of a fatal commercial plane crash on Thursday that killed a Washington state man.

The cessation of regular service left travelers stranded or scrambling for charter flights even as demand for seats spiked with Bering Sea crabbers headed out for the season opener.

Alaska Airlines markets two or three flights a day from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor, an airport notorious for temperamental Aleutian weather at a runway hemmed in by water.

Alaska Airlines and PenAir, a Ravn Air Group carrier, are temporarily stopping operations to and from Dutch Harbor in “the interest of safety” and “are working together to determine a timeline for resuming service,” according to an Alaska Airlines statement. Alaska markets the flight as PenAir, but that company was purchased by a Ravn affiliate in bankruptcy proceedings last year.

Alaska is offering a full refund to people who bought tickets on the route through Oct. 28. An Alaska Airlines spokesman said that doesn’t mean service will be suspended through that date.

A Ravn spokeswoman referred all questions to Alaska Airlines.

The crash occurred Thursday afternoon when a plane landing with 39 passengers and three crew from Anchorage ran off the end of the runway on the pilot’s second attempt to touch down. The Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop came to a stop with its nose hanging over the edge of a rocky embankment at the water’s edge. Parts of a propeller blade ended up in the cabin.

Traumatic injuries killed Wenatchee resident 38-year-old David Allan Oltman. People in Unalaska say Oltman’s construction job brought him there fairly regularly.

Another critically injured passenger was flown to Anchorage. Nine more people got hurt, including at least one member of Cordova’s high school swim team who needed a trip to Anchorage for metal embedded in his leg. The rest of the team returned home Friday.

An 8-member National Transportation Safety Board team is in Unalaska investigating the crash, according to the agency’s Alaska chief, Clint Johnson. A barge brought the plane to another site at the airport for inspection. The cockpit recorders yielded good recordings, Johnson said.

It wasn’t the NTSB’s decision to suspend air service, which falls outside that agency’s authority, he said.

The disruption to air service stranded some either in Unalaska or on their way back.

Don Goodfellow’s quality control manager at Alyeska Seafoods Inc. was stuck in Portland as of Tuesday. Another of his employees couldn’t rotate out for vacation and was helping with maintenance between pollock and crab processing seasons.

The next pulse in demand for air travel could come within a few days, Goodfellow said, when crab fishermen get a break between seasons and will want to go home.

“I’m expecting my dock will be very full of very frustrated fishermen if we don’t get service restored pretty soon,” he said.

Several companies provide charter service to the area: flights booked by a single entity, like a seafood processor, instead of seat by seat.

Alaska Central Express on Tuesday was sending two charters to Unalaska and two to Akun Island, the closest place to get a boat or smaller plane over to Dutch Harbor, according to Steven Deaton, senior vice president.

But getting one of 16 seats on the company’s Beechcraft 1900 isn’t as easy as booking a ticket online.

“Thing is, they’re trying to buy one seat,” customer service representative Alicia Tufaga said Tuesday. “We don’t do that, we don’t sell individual seats. People are trying to get on the charter but they have to contact the people who chartered the plane.”

Grant Aviation doesn’t provide scheduled service between Anchorage and Unalaska. But some travelers booked flights from Unalaska to Saint Paul Island where they could catch a Ravn flight to Anchorage, according to Grant’s station manager in Unalaska.

Flying challenges are familiar in the Aleutians, longtime Unalaska resident Suzi Golodoff said Tuesday, reporting “crappy visibility” and a nasty cross-wind near the airport.

The current situation is causing residents to cancel medical appointments and planned trips but at the same time, it’s not unusual to go for days without getting out, Golodoff said.

“The bigger thing is people are badly shaken and really feeling tender about what happened,” she said. “It was really a horrible thing to see that plane over the embankment like that.”

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