An Alaskan floatplane. (Photo: iStock)
Despite a deadly crash that claimed the lives of eight passengers and one pilot in southeast Alaska on Thursday, pilots there say floatplanes are still a safe way to travel, but some critics point out that the pressure to maximize profits could put passengers in dangerous situations.
The tourists were flying on Promech Air on an excursion organized by Holland America Line. The bodies were recovered Friday, but investigators are still looking into how the sightseeing floatplane crashed into mountainous terrain. “It’s going to be quite the undertaking,” Megan Peters, information officer with the Alaska State Troopers, told Yahoo Travel. “It’s going to take some time.”
Just days after the incident, several floatplane companies across Alaska say it’s been business as usual, although pilots have discussed the unfortunate incident among themselves as a sober reminder to pay attention up in the air. “It’s definitely sad,” said Molly Sloan, dispatcher and office manager for Alaska Bush Floatplane Service. “None of the customers have voiced concerns… Our pilots are always careful and not afraid to say ‘no,’ if the weather’s not good.”
But Princess Cruises, which also sails through Alaska and offers floatplane tours, has suspended all flights with Promech Air until further notice and is giving guests a full refund. “All other flightseeing shore excursions operating with other flight operators will continue as planned,” the line said in a statement. “However, any guest concerned about flying who wants to cancel a flight tour of any kind on any operator in the next week will be issued a full refund.”
Yahoo Travel reached out to Holland America, but the line did not provide immediate comment on whether or not its floatplane excursions would continue. Promech Air told Yahoo Travel it will be resuming limited charter flights through the weekend.
Maritime lawyer Jim Walker points out that there is tremendous pressure exerted by the cruise lines and the excursion companies to fly, notwithstanding poor weather, in order to maximize profits. “I have heard many complaints from Alaskan residents and cruise passengers that excursion planes and helicopters routinely take off in poor weather with very limited visibility,” Walker told Yahoo Travel. “The cruise passengers cannot cancel if the weather is bad without a penalty.”
According to Walker, many excursion policies state that there is a 100 percent cancellation fee if a passenger cancels within three days of sailing. “It’s a tough choice — lose your excursion fee or risk your life,” says Walker. “This is an unreasonable and irresponsible policy. Profits over safety.”
Many Alaskans use floatplanes as a regular means of travel on a daily basis and locals of “The Last Frontier” know the weather can become stormy at a moment’s notice.
A view from a floatplane of Alaska’s Mystic Fjords, where a recent accident took place. (Photo: iStock)
Conditions around Mystic Fjords National Monument, where the floatplane was circling before it crashed, are described as part of a rapidly changing environment. The obscure combination of low cloud cover and precipitation-heavy air that makes the area’s winter-in-summer wonderland landscape so beautiful and blue also draws challenges.
Steve McCaughey, executive director of the Seaplane Pilots Association who has flown through the state, explains: “You can take off and five minutes later it’s a different scenario… In Alaska, things happen much more faster and dynamically than in the lower 48.”
But McCaughey also points out this is a quite well-known, well-traveled route and high-repetition sightseeing planes such as the De Havilland DHC-3 Otter single-engine aircraft involved in the incident generally hold a low-level risk. He suspects the cause to be atmospheric, not mechanical or human error.
In a recent interview, floatplane pilot Mark Stadsklev said: “Weather is not dangerous, as long as you respect it. I used to hire pilots and wouldn’t feel comfortable unless they came back and said weather was bad. There’s a pressure to complete the trip. Part of flying is exercising judgment.”
A 2007 photo of the De Havilland DHC-3T plane that crashed and killed former Sen. Ted Stevens. (Photo: Clark James Mishler/Getty Images)
There have been a number of floatplane accidents in Alaska in recent years, including the high-profile crash on August 10, 2010 that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens near Dillingham. According to the The National Transportation Safety Board, recent aircraft incidents in the area include:
● In August 2010, four people were killed near Katmai National Park. Investigators found reports of reduced visibility and heavy rain at the time when the plane likely collided on an ocean lagoon surface. But a cause was undetermined as the majority of wreckage was not recovered.
● Also in August 2010, four people and a pilot died, and four other passengers were seriously injured when a De Havilland DHC-3 crashed into mountainous terrain. Probable cause was the pilot’s “temporary unresponsiveness.”
● In July 2013, the engine on a flight operated by Promech Air cruising along Thorne Bay lost power. There were three serious injuries.
● Also in July 2013, nine passengers and a pilot aboard a De Havilland DHC-3 died after takeoff from Soldtona Airport. The investigation is still open.
● In November 2013, three passengers and a pilot died after crashing into terrain over snow-covered tundra near St. Mary’s. Six others were injured. Investigators were delayed for days from reaching the scene due to poor weather conditions.
Benjamin Norman, a teacher and businessman from Florida who took his family on a Disney Cruise this June to Alaska, boarded a floatplane for the first time in a similarly cruise-offered floatplane excursion in Vancouver. He was shocked to read the news on the Alaska incident.
“My first reaction was I felt sorry for the people because I know the excitement of those people on a cruise, the excitement of a lifetime to go on a plane. They probably never saw it coming,” said Norman of the victims. “I could see how if you have a bad weather day near the Alaskan mountains, that could be a recipe for disaster.”
Still, Norman says he wouldn’t be deterred from getting on another floatplane but would think twice, if he sees stormy weather brewing.
“I don’t think there’s anything less safe about floatplane than any other plane,” he added.