Unalaska considers legal action against airlines involved in last month’s fatal plane crash

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)

The City of Unalaska may consider legal action against the airlines involved in last month’s fatal plane crash.

City councilor Shari Coleman proposed the idea at a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 12. She said the community is suffering from financial “collateral damage” as regular flights to and from Anchorage have been shut down for nearly four weeks.

“We kind of just got dropped,” said Coleman. “I do wonder, though, with all of the talk about Alaska Airlines’ responsibility, is there a legitimate legal option? A course of action that the city should or might think about taking?”

Alaska Airlines has long marketed Unalaska’s route, selling tickets and setting prices. Ravn Air Group is the carrier that operates the flights. It was also Ravn’s decision to ground the Saab 2000 that crashed and then start the lengthy process of certifying another aircraft to run the route temporarily: the smaller, slower DeHavilland Dash 8.

Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson said the city needs to clarify the obligations of both airlines, as well as explore legal options to address lost business.

While city officials have said it’s hard to quantify the “cascading” economic impacts, they’re confident they are “far-reaching” due to Unalaska’s position as the Aleutian region’s hub and the nation’s top fishing port in terms of volume landed.

Robinson said the airline route alone is worth big money.

“There are 58,000 passengers to and from this community in a year. That’s almost 12 times the population of the City of Unalaska,” said Robinson. “It’s worth $35 million, and I’m sure that there are some heads being turned.”

Those figures are meant to turn heads. They come from a new white paper the city has created to help with longer-term lobbying efforts at the state and federal levels.

Whether or not the city pursues legal action, officials said the crash and suspension of flights have “highlighted how fragile public transportation is for Unalaska and the entire region.” To improve it, the city is planning to push for support and funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the state and federal Departments of Transportation.

Ports Director Peggy McLaughlin helped to write the paper. She said there’s no easy or inexpensive fix, but the city is looking at ways to lengthen the airport’s short runway — or rejoin the Essential Air Service program, which Unalaska last participated in in the late 1990s. The goal is to attract more airlines or allow a wider variety of planes that can land safely.

“The lack of redundancy of one more than one airline — and the lack of redundancy of more than one type of aircraft that can fly in here — has created a big part of the backlog we have today,” said McLaughlin. “I think there’s a certain amount of responsibility that falls with government agencies that can be explored.”

The city is also planning to distribute its white paper to Alaska’s congressional delegation, the region’s seafood companies, and other frequent partners.

Ravn is expected to resume regular flights on Thursday, Nov. 14., while a federal investigation continues into the cause of the crash.

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