With regular flights still suspended, Unalaska considers emergency declaration after crash

A crane lifts an airplane from a rocky drop near the runway.
An effort got underway Friday, Oct. 18., to move a PenAir plane that had gone off the runway at Unalaska’s airport. One passenger died as a result of the incident. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

Update (Wednesday, 4:27 p.m.) — Laura Kraegel, KUCB-Unalaska

Unalaska has declared a local emergency over the community’s lack of commercial air service. The Unalaska City Council unanimously approved a declaration at a special meeting on Tuesday. (Read more.)

Original story

Unalaska may declare a state of emergency following a fatal plane crash on the island this month.

City officials took up the idea after RavnAir Group announced that it would not resume regular flights until early November — and that even afterwards, it would fly smaller, slower planes indefinitely.

Now, as the busy winter fishing season approaches, the community is trying to head off negative impacts to its economy, as well as ensure its safe and daily service.

A group of people are seated at a community meeting.
Unalaskans gather at Unalaska City Hall on Friday, Oct. 25, for a community meeting about air service. Another session was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 29. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

Unalaska is not expected to see regular commercial flights until sometime during the week of Nov. 4. If that timeline holds true, the community will have gone for about three weeks without scheduled service to and from Anchorage.

“At what point do we start looking at this as a state of emergency?” asked resident Carlos Tayag at a community meeting on Friday.

Tayag was one of more than a dozen people who testified about the effects of the crash and stalled flights — from family separations and missed work to canceled medical appointments and grief.

“This isn’t something where people are just calling and saying, ‘We’re having travel issues out here in Dutch Harbor,’” said Tayag. “Someone died. At what point do we take this as serious as it is and ask for state help? National help?”

Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson agreed the city should consider an emergency declaration. He pointed to the community’s status as the country’s biggest seafood port by volume — and the fact that crab and pollock fishing isn’t far off.

“The state of emergency that we’re in is not only stranded passengers,” said Robinson. “The city of Unalaska is going to take an economic hit, because the vessels that fish here are going to have to make a decision (whether) to run to Kodiak or other ports that can get better airline service and tie their boats up there.”

Beyond hurting local tax revenue, Robinson said any loss of port traffic would hit island businesses big and small. So he asked city officials and state Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham to look more specifically at how an emergency order might help.

The Unalaska City Council is expected to pick up that discussion at a special meeting on Tuesday.

The runway at Unalaska’s airport, photographed from Mount Ballyhoo in 2017. PenAir’s evening flight on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, went off the east end of the runway, to the left side of the photograph. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KUCB)

Meanwhile, RavnAir President Dave Pflieger said Unalaska’s daily flights will resume as soon as the airline certifies its De Havilland Dash 8 aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We’re doing our best to get regularly scheduled commercial service going,” said Pflieger. “Unfortunately, it just takes some time for us to get ready to do that.”

The Dash 8 is set to replace the Saab 2000, which flew the route on a temporary basis.

While the switch in planes has lengthened the delay, Pflieger said he stands by it.

“I am the one who made the decision to stop service with Saab 2000 aircraft to Dutch Harbor,” he said. “And before I am ready to allow resumption of regularly scheduled PenAir Saab 2000 operations, I must ensure that we are ready to do (commercial flights) in the safest manner possible.”

Ravn offered no timeline for reinstating the Saab 2000, which carries more passengers and cargo than the Dash 8. It also shaves times off the trip between Unalaska and Anchorage — and completes it without a refueling stop.

For those reasons, resident and former mayor Frank Kelty told Pflieger that he hopes the Saab 2000s are back in operation before winter wreaks further havoc on travel.

“I’m concerned if you’re going to have enough aircraft if we’re still with the Dash (by winter time),” said Kelty. “If we have weather events, which we certainly will in January or February, we don’t have the redundancy to play catch up. You’re going to have 300 or 400 people stuck in the airport — in both airports.”

Ravn officials said they’re confident they’ll be able to serve the route with the Dash 8, though they haven’t said yet if the new aircraft will match the two or three daily flights provided by the the Saab 2000. It’s also unclear how much Dash 8 flights will cost in comparison — or if travelers will receive the same baggage allowances and mileage plan options.

Ravn is still figuring out those details with marketing partner Alaska Airlines.

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