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TV series about Alaska plane crashes doesn't please Sen. Murkowski or the travel industry

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski says a show about Alaska air crashes premiering Sunday is in poor taste and could do major damage to business in the state.

The Smithsonian Channel show, "Alaska Aircrash Investigations," follows National Transportation Safety Board investigators as they seek answers relating to six fatal plane crashes in the summer of 2015.

The show's concept is "cruel, hurtful and exploitative. And if that were not insult enough, it is enabled by two taxpayer supported entities," Alaska's senior senator wrote in a letter to the show's producers and the Smithsonian.

Murkowski was incensed that, despite the involvement of the Smithsonian and the NTSB, she only found out about the show after reading an article in Alaska Dispatch News.

The show could scare visitors off air travel in the state, just before the start of summer tourist season, she said.

"The timing of this series could not be worse," Murkowski wrote in one of several letters sent to parties involved with the production. "Alaska's aviation and tourism industries fear that the series would dissuade visitors from purchasing flightseeing tours and fly-in fishing expeditions. Remote fishing lodge operators fear the series will discourage potential customers from using their facilities."

NTSB officials told ADN last month that the show is more documentary than reality, and great care was taken to be sensitive to a difficult subject matter. Anchorage writer Emily Fehrenbacher obtained an advance review copy and found it a bit dry, she wrote for

But requests for advance copies by the Alaska Air Carriers Association and the Alaska Travel Association were declined. Murkowski's office received a copy of the first episode on Thursday.

Already, Alaska Airlines -- not included in the series -- complained about the original title, which had included "Alaska Air Crash," and the title was changed to "Alaska Aircrash Investigators," Murkowski said in a letter. "That seems to me a distinction without a difference in the court of public opinion," she wrote.

Sarah Leonard, president of the Alaska Tourism Industry Association, said her group has concerns "over what the tone of the series might be on such a critical topic to not only the tourism industry, but also Alaskans who use small planes to fly from community to community."

Nearly 20 percent of tourists to the state take a flightseeing tour, Leonard said, echoing Murkowski's concerns about the timing of the show.

Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was acutely offended by the potential involvement of federal finances in the project.

"It seems out of character that the NTSB would 'go Hollywood,'" she wrote to NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart.

"What does the NTSB gain from participating in a reality show which cannot help but sensationalize tragic aviation mishaps for public consumption yet contribute nothing to the NTSB's core mission to investigate and inform?" Murkowski asked Hart, pledging to raise the issue in a forthcoming hearing on the agency's budget.

Murkowski lobbed 19 detailed questions about the show at Hart, asking for the names of those who approved it, and for more information on the financial agreement and what level of editorial control the NTSB retained in the process.

And, she asked, why didn't the agency think to inform the Alaska congressional delegation?

Murkowski said in the letter that she had heard "that the NTSB, members of the production crew or both, may have misrepresented the reason the film crew was present," telling people the filming was part of an investigation or for internal training purposes.

If that turns out to be the case, she may involve agencies' inspectors general to investigate the matter, Murkowski said.

Beyond the concerns about financial impacts, Murkowski said, she finds the concept of the show distasteful.

Many rural and Native communities have experienced deadly accidents but must continue to depend on air travel.

"My staff in Alaska suggests that forcing rural and Native people to relive some of their darkest days is cruel and insulting," Murkowski wrote.

Murkowski asked that the premiere be delayed "if not permanently shelved."

Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, said the Smithsonian had received the letter but not yet responded.

Chris O'Neil, an NTSB spokesman, said the agency has discussed the issues in the letter with Murkowski and her staff.

"We are compiling the information necessary to fully respond to the senator's questions," O'Neil said.

Alaska airline industry groups shared Murkowski's concerns that the show could foster a negative impression about Alaska air travel.

Matt Atkinson, president of the Alaska Air Carriers Association and owner of several air tourism companies, said he is worried about the "general negative impact and connotation that associates Alaska aviation with air crashes."

"That feeling alone can tank an industry in one season," Atkinson said.

To some degree, that impression may already exist in the Lower 48, particularly given the widely reported death of Sen. Ted Stevens in August 2010 and many others in a state that has at times had an accident rate far higher than the national average.

Alaska's Medallion Foundation, a safety organization formed in 2001 by the Alaska Air Carriers Association, notes on its website that in "the 1990s, being an Alaskan pilot was listed as the most hazardous occupation in the United States."

But between 2000 and 2009, the aviation industry in Alaska reduced accidents by 47 percent through "safety programs, advanced avionics installation in aircraft and the continued deployment of weather camera and weather reporting stations," according to the Medallion Foundation and the Alaska Air Carriers Association.

Atkinson said the Alaska Air Carriers Association board reached out to producers and the congressional delegation after hearing about the show.

Producers filmed industry perspectives that they said they will post on the website, and they agreed to change some episode titles to remove locations. The first episode, originally called "Juneau Flight Down," is now "Forest Flight Down."