Six days after the PenAir crash, still without flight service, anxiety grows in Unalaska

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator examines the crashed Saab 2000 plane in Unalaska on Saturday, Oct. 19. NTSB officials said the suspension of the community’s regular flight service is not a result of the ongoing inquiry. (LAURA KRAEGEL/KUCB)

(Update, 10/24: New planes will bring regular service back to Unalaska, Ravn says, but not until next month)

Unalaska’s regular flight service has been stalled for almost six days.

The suspension was announced by Alaska Airlines, PenAir, and Ravn Air Group in the wake of last week’s fatal plane crash. While some travelers are scoring seats on charter flights, the wider island community is growing anxious for regular service to resume.

“I had calls today from a mother that’s been stranded in Anchorage for five days,” said former mayor Frank Kelty at Tuesday night’s City Council.

Even though he retired recently, Kelty said he’s getting requests for help from frustrated travelers hoping that he has pull with the airlines.

“One of the things I’ve been in hearing [about] in the community since this happened is a lack of outreach by Alaska and Ravn — or PenAir and Ravn — to the community itself,” said Kelty. “There’s a lack of information.”

Alaska Airlines markets Unalaska’s route, operated by PenAir. PenAir is also owned by Ravn Air Group. 

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

After tentatively planning to resume flights on Tuesday, airline officials released a statement on Monday that said they were still working on a timeline and that the suspension was “in the interest of safety.” KUCB’s requests for further comment have not been returned.

City Manager Erin Reinders said she’s pressing the airlines for more information.

“Rest assured, I have communicated to them that the community is more than done at this point, and we really need some solid answers,” said Reinders to the council.

Suspended service has left Unalaskans canceling vacations and medical appointments off-island, while those stranded in Anchorage deal with pricey, unplanned layovers. The same goes for regional residents who fly through Unalaska on their way to and from Akutan, Atka, and other Aleutian communities.

Some travelers have gotten in and out on charter flights, including the high school wrestling team and a number of people working in Bering Sea crabbing, which opened last week. But Reinders said those limited, expensive spots are not a real solution.

“I’ve reached out to our congressional delegation,” she said. “Our state and federal lobbyists are on it — to try to at least get the word out. We are an island community and we do depend upon this air service.”

NTSB Investigator John Lovell addresses the Unalaska City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 22. He’s also investigating the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed 157 people last March. LAURA KRAEGEL/KUCB

The suspension is not connected to the ongoing investigation into the plane crash, according to lead investigator John Lovell of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“PenAir took it upon themselves to limit their activity — just to be cautious,” said Lovell. “That was not a requirement.”

Lovell told councilors he expects the inquiry to take about a year as investigators work to determine the cause of the crash. But he said it’s important to note that “safety is not compromised by this time.”

“If we saw something that was important right now, we would issue an emergency recommendation [against flying,]” he said. “So just the fact that it takes this time, it shows there doesn’t appear to be anything that urgently needs to be addressed.”

A member of the NTSB investigation team surveys an area near the crash site on Saturday, Oct. 19.(LAURA KRAEGEL/KUCB)

Lovell said he expects to be in Unalaska for another three days or so, before heading to Anchorage and then returning to Washington D.C. His team of 20 investigators includes six from Sweden because the crashed Saab 2000 plane is Swedish-manufactured.

He said they’re studying the aircraft’s flight data and cockpit recorders, maintenance records, and other systems, along with weather conditions at time of the landing and pilots’ statements and toxicology samples.

“We have a lot more to do,” said Lovell. “We’re going to remove a lot of the wheel assembly, a lot of the anti-skid systems and sensors. We’re going to put those through the manufacturer’s laboratory and test them.”

PenAir President Brian Whilden is also in Unalaska to speak with investigators, according to the city manager. Reinders said he declined an invitation to the council meeting as he was “not authorized to come and speak.”

NTSB Investigator John Lovell walks on Saturday, Oct. 19 near the end of Unalaska’s runway. The plane was moved from the crash site over the weekend. (LAURA KRAEGEL/KUCB)

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Laura Kraegel covers Unalaska and the Aleutian Islands for KUCB . Originally from Chicago, she first came to Alaska to work at KNOM, reporting on Nome and the Bering Strait Region. (laura@kucb.org / 907.581.6700)

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