‘A Swiss cheese moment’: how a communication breakdown stopped flights to Aniak

The Aniak runway is being moved 261 feet. (Krysti Shallenberger/KYUK)

Earlier in August, pilots trying to land at the Aniak airport got a last-minute notice that they were not allowed to land, disrupting cargo and passenger service into the small Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta hub. The Alaska Department of Transportation said the cause of the incident was a failure to communicate about a runway project.

According to Troy LaRue of the DOT, the Aniak runway was under construction for about three years after federal and state officials said it was too close to some homes and decided to move it 200 feet.

“So we worked for a very long time to put together a project to shift the runway in order to come into safety standards and federal compliance and shifting the runway. Eventually, you have to open one, and you have to close the other one, right?” LaRue said.

That’s what happened in August. To continue construction, DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration closed down the runway that housed the vital landing equipment. When the DOT and the FAA make a decision like that, they normally notify pilots and airlines over the radio, called a notice to airmen, or NOTAM. But this time, the radio notice was issued the day they closed the old runway instead of a few days before. And the new runway doesn’t have all the equipment pilots need to land safely.

Northern Air Cargo station manager Gideon Garcia said that it boiled down to a failure to communicate between the state and federal agencies involved in the project.

“Sort of a Swiss cheese moment when all the holes lined up in the swiss cheese and fell through the cracks, literally, and the right information wasn’t published in a timely manner to alert people that there was going to be an update from the old runway to a new runway,” Garcia said.

Garcia said that NAC couldn’t deliver bypass mail and freight for about a week. The DOT and FAA have since changed the approach to the runway so planes can land safely again.

“And gosh, I don’t think it took more than two days. And we had figured out that, ‘wait a minute, we can still use, it’s called an RNAV approach. And basically, it’s a circling approach that is designed for the old runway. We were able to modify the NOTAM to be able to put some approach procedures in place,” LaRue said.

LaRue said the RNAV approach, while not ideal, will work until they install new landing equipment, and that the department is currently investigating where they went wrong.

“If we would have started those conversations earlier, they would have been resolved earlier on, I’m pretty sure,” LaRue said.

LaRue said that they hope to have the new runway and all the landing equipment up and running by Sept. 20.

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