With Regular Flights Still Suspended, Unalaska Considers Emergency Declaration After Crash

Oct 29, 2019

Unalaskans gather at City Hall on Friday, Oct. 25 for a community meeting about air service. Another session is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 29.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

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

City officials took up the idea after Ravn Air 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.

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 Rep. Bryce Edgmon to look more specifically at how an emergency order might help.

The City Council is expected to pick up that discussion at a special meeting on Tuesday. It starts at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Meanwhile, Ravn 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 (FAA).

"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 served the route between 2016 and the crash this month — on a temporary basis.

While the voluntary 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 schedule PenAir Saab 2000 operations, I must ensure that we are ready to do so 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.