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Safety in the skies.

Let's face it. In order to do business in Alaska, you'll probably have to do some flying. With an area over twice the size of Texas, and a state capital that can't even be reached by road, the average Alaskan spends a lot of time airborne. And a lot of this flying is done via small airlines and charter service.

"If we're going to get anywhere in this state, we have to fly," says Jim Campbell, CEO of Alaska Commercial Co., a business with outlets in many bush communities. "Flying in small aircraft is a way of life with us."

Check the figures. It's estimated that Alaska has about six times as many pilots per capita and 16 times as many aircraft per capita as the rest of the United States. Air commerce in Alaska carries the equivalent of four times the state's population each year, compared with about 1.7 times the U.S. population carried annually by air commerce in other states.

As of May 1993, Alaska has 9,391 pilots and 9,408 aircraft. This is about one pilot and one plane for every 58 state residents. General aviation hours flown in Alaska annually average about 951,000, 3 percent of the U.S. total. Alaskans log in about 100 hours per pilot, twice the national average.

Most in the industry think air safety in Alaska is good and has been improving. And while no one questions the responsibility of pilots, mechanics and management of airlines, smart business travelers can ask a few simple questions and take a few basic precautions to ensure a good flight.

How Safe is Safe?

Flying on board the larger airlines remains remarkably safe, with just .155 accidents per 100,000 flying hours in 1992, an all-time low. But after landing in Anchorage, many business trips are continued aboard smaller aircraft run by local airlines or charter services. Nationally, the air taxi division also reached an all-time low accident rate in 1992, 3.32 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.

Despite the air industry's good safety record, all the flying in the state puts employees who must travel at risk. In 1992, 27 Alaskan workers died in air crashes. Eight were air transportation workers, and the other 19 fatalities included eight Army National Guardsmen who died in a single crash and five loggers who died in a single helicopter crash.

How safe is flying in Alaska? Val Aron, regional accident prevention program manager for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), says, "Are the numbers really that bad? I don't know. Right now, we just have the raw numbers. We're working on getting comparisons."

"I'd say that most operators we work with are trying to do it safely and efficiently and with a good attitude," she adds. "They're not trying to cut corners or bend rules. They're trying to make a living and that's not always easy."

Richard Harding, director of operations for PenAir and president of the Alaska Air Carriers Association (AACA), believes that Alaska's accident rate figures may be skewed. "About six months ago, the AACA looked into the matter, and we concluded that Alaska flyers get credited for all the accidents they have, but only about 10 percent of the air time was recorded. The information the figures you see were based on estimates."

Harding acknowledges that flying in Alaska does pose special problems. "In the Lower 48, the navigational aids might be 100 miles apart. Here, they're 350 miles apart. A lot of flights wind up being visual."

Timothy "Tab" Borson, Anchorage manager of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), charged with investigating air accidents, says most people don't differentiate between the plane they flew and the smaller aircraft that takes them to their final destination. "Talking to survivors, they thought the level of safety was the same," he notes.

"Ideally, the level of safety involving passenger operations should be equivalent throughout the scale of operation, from the two-passenger Piper Cub to the Boeing 747 pilot/operator. It does not necessarily matter what type of aircraft you fly or where you fly, the corner stone of safety is the degree of prudence and professionalism forged into the operation."

But Borson says the majority of accidents are caused by inappropriate decisions. "The soul of any flight begins in the pilot's mind. Our accident data show in many cases the pilot had the necessary skills and qualifications to fly the aircraft; rather, the accident was fostered by an error in their decision-making either during the flight or before." The epitaph to this kind of accident could very well read "a case where the pilot let his 'can do' attitude out vote their 'should do' judgement."

Old, Not Bold

There's an old saying in the business that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. Because their lives are also on the line, responsible pilots and managers truly believe in their safety programs. Security Aviation, an air charter service in Anchorage, has suffered only one minor accident in its nine years of flying.

"We're very conservative in our flying," says Michael O'Neill, Security's president. "We hate to turn down business but a certain amount of our customers are flying strictly for safety. They're glad when we tell them we're the biggest chickens in the airport."

O'Neill says his company policy is to simply not fly in marginal weather. "In certain places, you don't play games with the weather."

Some of the larger companies even perform their own inspections. Frank Heffernan, aviation administrator for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., a big user of commercial airlines, says his department performs both spot checks and annual operation and safety inspections for the airlines the company uses.

"We bring in outside inspectors from the aviation-inspection business," says Heffernan. "They come in and check out everything, including the maintenance and operations programs."

Heffernan says that Alyeska has been doing these inspections since construction days to insure the safety of its employees. "We have to," he says. "Our pump stations work a week on/week off schedule, and many remote sites can only be reached by air. We also do air surveys of the pipeline."

Know Your Plane and Pilot

Security's O'Neill says the biggest problem with customers is the "uneducated use of aircraft." He says few executives know enough about the aircraft they'll be flying in.

People need to know what an airline's liability insurance coverage is for each passenger. There may be a reason why the airline has a very low limit, O'Neill cautions. They should also look at who the primary users are. Maybe they could just ask friends, or ask airport managers. See if they fly for major companies.

"We have a problem with travel planners," explains O'Neill. "The only question they have is 'Who has the lowest price?' I can't lower my price and keep our safety standards."

Hank Rust, owner of Rust's Flying Service, echoes this, saying, "Most of the time, all they'll check is the price," he says. "I'm adamant that people should check further than price." He advises customers to ask about the pilot's qualifications, the plane's quality and the company's accident record.

Says NTSB's Borson, "Look at the general condition of the plane, does it need paint and so forth. Also look at the appearance of the pilot -- his demeanor and what they call physical style. Look at the other pilots, the mechanics and clerks.

Borson advises, "If a passenger genuinely feels uncomfortable with what they have been told, heard or observed, they should speak with the pilot/operator to resolve the issue. If this should prove unfruitful, a call to the local Federal Aviation Administration Flight Standards District Office would not be out of line."

PenAir's Harding has this advice: "Generally, the passenger should go through a travel agency, because they will schedule on the established airlines."


Experts warn against trying to second-guess the pilot. Alyeska's Heffernan says, "It's real important for the customer to look at his role in the aviation equation. Businesses do have the ability to improve safety by not pushing the aviation folks. They know their limits. Communicate with them and get to know these limits. You may be pushing them without knowing it."

Adds FAA's Aron, "Most important, you want to allow a lot of flexibility in your schedule so that if the air company says that the weather isn't good enough, it's not a big problem. If the pilot tells you he's not going to fly, or he doesn't want to land on the field, believe me, he doesn't want to lose money -- or die."

Aron says that passengers have a right to expect a seat -- fastened to the floor -- and a seatbelt that works when boarding a plane. "Ten to 15 years ago, it was practice to sit on baggage or a box. Cargo should be tied down, and if you're asked to hold baggage or the exits are blocked, get out, even if it means you're going to miss the big meeting. Consumers should be proactive and call the FAA," she says.

In addition, Aron advises that customers dress warmly so that if the plane is forced down, or you're forced to stand out by the runway, you won't be uncomfortable. She points out that some of the landing fields don't have a terminal building.

Keep in mind that small planes can only carry so much, Aron warns. If you show up with too much stuff, and the airline says all your baggage can't go on the plane, don't pitch a fit.

Hank Rust advises that customers use common sense about what they bring on board, and notes that frequently passengers bring hazardous materials -- propane, stove gas and bear repellent -- on board without knowing it. He also advises against bringing loaded guns. On one memorable occasion, a rifle accidentally discharged in flight, shooting a hole through the plane and narrowly missing Rust.

In the final analysis, customers should remember that flying, like anything else, can never be made 100 percent risk-free. Says NTSB's Borson, "People have the unaliable right to be assured that the flight can and will be conducted with safety as the sentinel."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:safety tips for business travelers
Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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