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Former PenAir Owners Say Unalaska Crash Raises Questions About New Operator's Standards

Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media

Through last week, U.S. commercial airlines — distinct from the smaller bush planes that carry Alaskans to rural villages — had gone a full decade with just one paying passenger dying in an accident.

That changed last Thursday when a PenAir flight with 42 people crashed off the end of the runway in Unalaska, killing David Oltman, 38, of Wenatchee, Washington.

Now, the family that founded PenAir is raising questions about the safety standards of the new owners that bought the company out of bankruptcy last year.

Orin and Danny Seybert are both pilots who have flown into the Dutch Harbor airport. In an interview this week, they said they're alarmed by the decision of the pilot in last week's crash to land from the northwest, when weather data showed winds blowing in the roughly the same direction.

Landing with a tailwind forces pilots to approach with more speed, which can pose a particular challenge on Unalaska's short runway. Hourly National Weather Service observations showed winds of 13 miles per hour some 50 minutes before the crash, and 24 mile-per- hour winds were recorded 11 minutes afterward, gusting to 31.

"It's just common sense," said Orin Seybert, PenAir's 83-year-old founder. "No pilot in the world is not trained to land into the wind."

PenAir's new management and Alaska Airlines, which markets its flights, have announced the suspension of regular flights to and from the island until the week of Nov. 4.

PenAir did not directly respond to questions about the winds during the crash, instead sending its own statement.

"The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating this tragic accident, and they will determine what happened," it said.

The NTSB has brought in a special "major investigations" team from Washington, D.C. to determine what happened. While a preliminary report is expected within a few weeks, the full inquiry could take a year or more. 

The Seyberts and other pilots acknowledge that it's too early to assign a cause for the crash.

Mechanical problems with the plane, for example, haven't been ruled out. It's also possible that observers at the airport gave the PenAir pilot additional information about the wind before landing that was different from that of the weather service.

Such details could have been captured by the plane's voice recorder and will likely emerge when the NTSB issues its final report, said Joe Phillips, a former PenAir pilot.

"That'll clear this entire thing up, whether or not it's pilot error," said Phillips.

While details are still emerging, the Seyberts said the basic circumstances of the crash are enough to make them concerned about whether PenAir's new owners are maintaining the safety standards they once set.

Orin Seybert founded the company in the 1950s, and it stayed in his family until last year, after it filed for bankruptcy.

Danny Seybert, who was PenAir's chief executive, made an effort to reorganize the company and continue running it. But instead, a federal judge approved PenAir's sale to J.F. Lehman and Company, a private equity firm with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.

PenAir is now part of J.F. Lehman's Ravn Air Group, which also has subsidiary companies that fly to Fairbanks and rural Western Alaska. In 2014, before Ravn's acquisition by J.F. Lehman, a series of crashes by the company's planes — two of them fatal — drew scrutiny from the NTSB, which issued an "urgent safety recommendation" for a review by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Danny Seybert, who was laid off after PenAir's sale, said he sees last week's accident as a red flag for Peninsula Aviation Services, the name of the airline operating under J.F. Lehman's ownership.

"It's obvious, because this accident happened, that the safety culture that we created at PenAir is not the same at Peninsula Aviation Services," said Seybert. "And I'm concerned for the people in the communities out there that they don't have the same level of safety that we had."

Unalaska's airport is famously challenging for pilots. There's water at both ends of the runway and a mountain on one side.

Under his family's management, Seybert said, PenAir's guidelines called for pilots to have at least 300 hours of experience in a Saab 2000 before they could captain a flight to the airport. Exceptions could be made if the pilot built in specific and additional safety margins for wind, said Seybert.

Debbie Reinwand, a spokesperson for PenAir's new management, would not answer questions about the experience level of the captain in the crash or the company's standards for pilots.

She responded to Danny Seybert's comments in the company's prepared statement.

"We strongly disagree with Mr. Seybert's statements and his characterization of the safety culture at Peninsula Aviation Services," said Reinwand.

The passenger's death in the crash is the first among all U.S. airlines since last year, when a woman was killed after an engine exploded on a Southwest Airlines flight. Before that, the previous airline passenger death was in 2009.

Those fatalities were suffered by passengers on flights run by the more stringently regulated companies operating under the FAA "Part 121" certification. That category includes PenAir and much larger U.S. airlines like Alaska Airlines.

Many of Alaska's fatal crashes have been by planes flown by companies certified under less stringent "Part 135" regulations, which apply to the smaller air services that fly bush planes.

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