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Aviation

Separated families, fishermen with toothaches wait as air service to Unalaska is delayed until next month

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)

Unalaska isn’t expected to see regularly scheduled commercial flights again until early November following the first fatal commercial airline crash in airport history.

Alaska Airline and Ravn Air Group canceled flights indefinitely following the Oct. 17 crash in which a Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop with 42 people overran the runway, killing a 38-year-old Washington state man and injuring 10 passengers. The plane came to a rest with its nose hanging over a rocky embankment at the water’s edge. Parts of a propeller blade ended up in the cabin.

On Thursday, Unalaskans stranded by the suspension of regular air service got word that commercial flights might not return for at least another 10 days.

“It’s pretty devastating for the patients,” said Dr. Nathan Faber, one of two dentists who fly into Unalaska to run practices there. Faber couldn’t make it this month for his regular appointments — or to help three fishermen with aching teeth out on the Bering Sea.

The continued scheduled flight shutdown comes as Bering Sea crab and pollock seasons wind down in Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor, the nation’s largest seafood port by volume. Soon, hundreds of fishermen and processing plant workers head home, some to international destinations that make rebooking canceled trips tricky.

Resident William Nelson said the relief in finally getting a specific time frame was tempered by the frustration of a week spent not knowing when service would resume, or why it was suspended.

There were 40 people waiting to get out of Unalaska at Westward Seafoods as of Thursday and another 30 are scheduled to rotate out by month’s end, said Nelson, who manages the processing plant’s galley. Three men trying to get to the Philippines and Vietnam rebooked their flights numerous times before ending up on a company-purchased charter flight Thursday.

“We feel let down and confused," he said. “I think everybody is just trying to figure out their way off the island.”

RavnAir Alaska announced Thursday that it plans to restart service to Unalaska’s Tom Madsen Airport using a Dash 8 turboprop aircraft “sometime during the week of November 4th following internal preparation" and Federal Aviation Administration approval. Ravn has paused the use of the type of plane involved in the crash.

Alaska Airlines on Thursday announced it will not market the Anchorage-Unalaska route until preliminary findings are available from federal investigators and Saab.

Many who can afford it — or work for companies that can — are getting out on chartered flights. It’s not clear how many people are stranded: Local officials said they couldn’t confirm how many but said there are people trapped on both ends of the route.

Numerous companies are offering charter flights, including Ravn. Grant Aviation is also offering a $225 one-way flight on Friday and Saturday from Unalaska to Cold Bay, according to an update from city officials. The flights are scheduled to arrive in Cold Bay in time for a Ravn flight to Anchorage.

Some families remain separated, with members staying with relatives in Anchorage, Unalaska Mayor Vincent Tutiakoff Sr. said.

Patients seen at health care facilities operated by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association are getting rescheduled if possible, according to president and CEO Dimitri Philemonof. Patients who need “immediate access to specialty care” are being handled on a case-by-case basis with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s travel department.

The Grand Aleutian Hotel in town has a sign on the door the airlines posted with a contact number to call for people who are stranded or need help, Tutiakoff said. “They’ve been taking care of them locally."

Before the crash, Alaska Airlines marketed up to three flights a day between Anchorage and Unalaska, where temperamental Aleutian weather batters the relatively short runway tucked against a mountain.

The flight that crashed was sold as PenAir 3296 but operated by a Ravn affiliate called Peninsula Aviation Service Inc., which purchased PenAir out of bankruptcy last year.

PenAir was short for Peninsula Airways Inc., an Alaska aviation service incorporated in 1965. PenAir founder Orin Seybert last week called the flight that crashed a “total Ravn operation” that didn’t involve pilots that PenAir provided or trained.

No aircraft, including the Saab, could safely land at Unalaska in a 25-knot tailwind like the conditions occurring around the time of the fatal crash, Seybert said in an interview last week.

“We would have landed the other direction, into the wind,” he said. “It was highly improbable for any airplane to land that way in those conditions.”

The Saab 2000 aircraft were part of PenAir’s fleet.

Seybert, who blames the bankruptcy on the Saab lease, maintains that the plane has “the unique ability to carry 45 passengers at 400 mph, and still operate safely off of a 4,000-foot runway such as the one at Dutch Harbor."

A Ravn spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions Wednesday or Thursday.

A major-investigations team from the National Transportation Safety Board is in Unalaska looking into the crash. The team has yet to release its first, preliminary report. A finding of probable cause can take more than a year.

Alaska has canceled all flights it markets between Anchorage and Unalaska through Nov. 8 and will issue a full refund to customers holding tickets to travel through that date. People with questions can call 888-885-0155.

“We understand this is a difficult time for the Unalaska community and seafood industry with the limited air service available,” Alaska Airlines said in its statement.

Additional information about the resumption of regular commercial service will be released when available, Ravn said. Tickets will be available through the company’s website.

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