Former PenAir owners say Unalaska crash raises questions about new operator’s standards

Danny Seybert, left, and Orin Seybert pose for a photo Tuesday outside Danny’s home in Anchorage. Orin founded PenAir in the 1950s and Danny ran it until it was purchased out of bankruptcy last year by a private equity firm. (Photo by 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 Thursday when a PenAir flight with 42 people crashed off the end of the runway in the Aleutian fishing port of Dutch Harbor, killing a 38-year-old Washington man. And 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. And 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.

Related: Six days after the PenAir crash, still no word when flights will resume, anxiety grows in Unalaska

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

One passenger who was aboard the Saab 2000 plane said it failed to slow down after it hit the ground, then hurtled off the end of the runway and came to rest teetering over water.

Related:‘He’s not going to stop!’ – Read the passenger’s account

“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.”

A crane hoists PenAir’s Saab 2000 airplane off the rocky ledge where it came to rest after a crash landing at Dutch Harbor’s airport last week. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

On Monday, PenAir’s new management and Alaska Airlines, which marketed the flight that crashed, announced the suspension of flights to and from Dutch Harbor “in the interest of safety.”

“Alaska and PenAir are working together to determine a timeline for resuming service to Unalaska, Alaska,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement Monday.

PenAir did not directly respond to questions about the winds during last week’s 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, said spokesman Clint Johnson; a preliminary report is expected within a few weeks.

Read continuing coverage of the PenAir crash

There are 21 investigators in Dutch Harbor this week, including three from an agency in Sweden, which is where Saab is headquartered, freelance journalist Jim Paulin reported Tuesday.

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 Dutch Harbor airport gave the PenAir pilot additional information about the wind before landing that was different from the weather service’s.

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 — though such investigations can last a year or more.

“That’ll clear this entire thing up, whether or not it’s pilot error,” Phillips said.

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.

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,” Seybert said. “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.”

The Dutch Harbor 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, additional safety margins for wind, Seybert acknowledged.

Debbie Reinwand, a spokeswoman for PenAir’s new management, would not answer questions about the experience level of the captain in last week’s 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,” Reinwand said.

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 Federal Aviation Administration’s “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.