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COMMERCIAL AVIATION IN ALASKA

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Floatplanes in their slips at Lake Hood, Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy of NIOSH.

The number of fatal crashes among air taxi and commuter operations in Alaska decreased 53% between 2000-2009 and the prior decade. This impact sheet describes how multiple safety partners coordinated their efforts to achieve this success.

NIOSH Partners with Organizations and Industry to Reduce Aviation Fatalities in Alaska

Alaska is uniquely dependent upon air transportation. Commuter and air taxi operators serve as the main link to much of Alaska, transporting people, cargo, and mail to more than 250 villages located off of the road system. This critical mode of transportation can be hazardous. View a video about the Alaska Aviation Lifeline. The content of the video is also available on YouTube.

A disproportionate number of commuter and air taxi crashes occur in Alaska (Table 1). Small commercial float plane docked in marina During 1990-2009 there were 1,615 commuter and air taxi crashes in the United States. Commuter and air taxi crashes in Alaska accounted for more than one-third of all commuter and air taxi crashes in the U.S., and approximately 20% of the fatal crashes and deaths.

Working as a pilot in Alaska continues to be a risky occupation. During 1990-2009, aviation crashes in Alaska caused 149 occupational pilot deaths (does not include military), an average of 8 pilot fatalities per year. These 149 fatalities over 20 years from a commercial pilot workforce of approximately 2,600 result in an annual pilot fatality rate of 287 per 100,000 pilots.

In recent years the pilot occupational fatality rate in Alaska has decreased to less than twice the rate for all U.S. pilots during 2003-2009. During this time there were 25 occupational pilot deaths (does not include military), resulting in an annual pilot fatality rate of 137 per 100,000 pilots. While this is an improvement, it is still approximately 36 times the mortality rate for all U.S. workers during the same time period. NIOSH continues to work with industry partners to improve occupational aviation safety.

Table 1: Commuter and Air Taxi Crashes 1990-2009

 U.S. CrashesAlaska Crashes
Number of crashes1615568 (35%*)
Number of fatal crashes40781 (20%*)
Number of fatalities1186238 (20%*)

†Defined as Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135 flights.
* Percent of all U.S. commuter and air taxi crashes.


Partnerships to Improve Aviation Safety in Alaska

The NIOSH Alaska Pacific Regional Office is in a unique position to address aviation safety issues with sound public health practice. For example, helicopter logging incidents in Alaska during 1992-1993 led to an extraordinarily high annual crash rate of 16% and a catastrophic pilot fatality rate of 5,000 deaths per 100,000 workers per year. NIOSH staff were instrumental in identifying the problem, providing an epidemiologic analysis, and working with the stakeholders to build a consensus intervention. There has been only one fatal helicopter logging incident (1996) since collaborative work began.

In 2000, the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Regional Office formed the Alaska Interagency Aviation Safety Initiative with several organizations:

This initiative was designed to improve air safety in Alaska and decrease the number of aviation crashes by:

  • Studying the problem scientifically,
  • Focusing on the worst problems,
  • Building consensus for change, and
  • Evaluating interventions for success.

The goal of the Alaska Interagency Aviation Safety Initiative is to reduce occupational aircraft crash fatalities by 50% by the end of 2009.

To help reach this goal, NIOSH is collaborating with industry and organizations to improve our collective knowledge of aviation hazards, and we are producing timely information useful to regulatory agencies, industry personnel, pilots, and safety organizations. This information includes surveillance summaries, research findings on risk factors, and evaluations of safety interventions and regulation changes. The partnerships that NIOSH staff have developed with nongovernmental organizations and industry are a critical part of our ability to do work in Alaska. Turning research into practice requires the active participation of these regulators, industry, and workers.

Examples of how NIOSH research has contributed to the implementation of several intervention strategies from the aviation safety partnership, include:

  • Medallion Program voluntary higher standard for air carrier operators
  • Capstone Program state-of-the-art aircraft navigational avionics equipment
  • Federal Aviation Administration’s Circle of Safety educational program to increase safety awareness among passengers

Other NIOSH activities include research focused on pilot survival factors in crashes through case-control studies and on organizational risk factors through a comprehensive survey of air taxi and commuter operators and their pilots. This work has resulted in three peer-reviewed publications and numerous presentations at regional and national scientific conferences, safety conferences, and industry meetings.


Improvements in Commercial Aviation Safety

To date the Alaska Pacific Regional Office and our partners have produced tangible results. For example, a common cause of fatal occupational Alaska aviation crashes has been the continuation of flights into poor visibility conditions (due to inadequate information, equipment, or expertise) resulting in controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). NIOSH researchers examined the risk factors associated with CFIT among air taxi and commuter pilots in Alaska during 1990-1998. Based on this and other research, there have been improvements in both regional technology infrastructure (e.g., placement of weather cameras across Alaska during 1995–2000) and awareness of the need for specialized training. As a result the number of CFIT accidents has decreased from 5 per year during 1990-1999 to less than 2 per year during 2000-2009.

NIOSH APRO continues to work with regulatory agencies and the Alaska air transportation industry to implement projects to reduce aircraft crashes and injuries. We will continue to collaborate with these organizations to research emerging aviation safety issues and to suggest additional improvements.


Published Reports on Commercial Aviation Safety

NIOSH Partners with Organizations and Industry to Reduce Aviation Fatalities in Alaska
DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2013-137 (March 2013)
The number of fatal crashes among air taxi and commuter operations in Alaska decreased 53% between 2000-2009 and the prior decade. This impact sheet describes how multiple safety partners coordinated their efforts to achieve this success.

A Multifaceted Public Health Approach to Statewide Aviation Safety
American Journal of Industrial Medicine: 2012 / 55:176–186
During the 1990s, Alaskan pilots had one of the most hazardous occupations in the US. In 2000, a multifaceted public health initiative was launched, focusing on Alaskan air taxi and commuter operations, including risk factor identification, improved weather information, and the formation of an industry-led safety organization. This document assesses effectiveness of this initiative by comparing rates of crashes using Poisson regression, comparing trends in annual numbers of crashes, and assessing changes in the number and type of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) events. The greatest improvements were seen in Alaska fatal air taxi and commuter crashes with a 57% decrease in rates between time periods. While the number of air taxi and commuter crashes in the rest of the US steadily declined during 1990–2009, Alaska only showed significant declines after 2000. CFIT crashes declined but remained more deadly than other crashes. This coordinated effort was successful in reducing crashes in the Alaskan air taxi and commuter industry, and might be applied to reduce occupational fatalities and injuries in other industries.

Occupational Aviation Fatalities - Alaska, 2000-2010
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: July 1, 2011 / 60(25);837-840
An average of five fatal occupational aircraft crashes and eight fatalities occurred per year during 2000-2010 in Alaska. Most of these crashes were due to weather, pilots ’ loss of aircraft control and pilots’ failure to maintain clearance from terrain, water or objects. Thirty-nine percent of crashes were associated with intended departures or destinations at sites not registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, (such as gravel bars, mountain tops and lakes) which may have little information on weather and landing conditions there or en route, and may have minimal, if any safety equipment on site. Pilots need to be proficient and exercise good judgment when flying to and from such locations. Passengers should be prepared for worst case scenarios and should not push pilots to make unsafe decisions. Future safety interventions should focus on providing weather information and improving pilots’ situational awareness; proficiency in piloting skills and aeronautical decision making should be emphasized.

Fatal Aviation Crashes in Alaska - A Need for Renewed Caution and Diligence
State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin: September 22, 2010 / No. 30
Although the number of aviation crashes and fatalities has declined over the past decade in Alaska, the number of fatal crashes and fatalities between January and August 2010 were higher than average. The reasons for the increase are currently unclear since many investigations are still ongoing. However, the study sites stable weather systems that have produced one of the coldest, gloomiest, and wettest summers on record for Southcentral Alaska as having created a potential crash hazard. Weather may have affected pilot proficiency by limiting time in the air, and pilot hours may have been further reduced due to the high price of aviation fuel and other operational costs. Recommendations to increase aviation safety and pilot proficiency include a continued focus on crash prevention through efforts such as the Medallion Foundation’s simulators and training programs, and Federal Aviation Administration and Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation-sponsored safety seminars; weather information should be continually enhanced and made easily available for pilots; and pilots should be encouraged to install Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment (similar to equipment used in the Capstone Project).

Survey and Analysis of Air Transportation Safety Among Air Carrier Operators and Pilots in Alaska
DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2007-102 (November 2006)
This document describes a comprehensive survey of air taxi and commuter operators and pilots in Alaska in which company and pilot demographics, flight practices, and attitudes about safety were examined. It provides information about current practices and how industry views potential safety measures, which is critical to designing effective prevention strategies.

Safe Flights in Alaska
Northwest Public Health: Fall/Winter 2006 / Vol 23, No2, p7.
Between 1990 and 1999, 52 commercial pilots flew a working plane into either the ground or a mountainside in Alaska. Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) is the aviation terminology for the seemingly impossible act of flying an airworthy aircraft into the ground. It is the leading cause of fatal commercial aviation accidents worldwide including 25 percent of all fatal airline accidents and 38 percent of international airline fatalities (3,631 lives lost from 1987 through 2004). In the 1990s several federal agencies came together, with financial support from Congress, to address the high rate of aviation accidents in Alaska. These agencies included the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), NOAA's National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Medallion Foundation. The collaborative approach of federal agencies, in concert with local nonprofit organizations, has had a tangible effect. Since 2000, not only has the average number of fatal occupational crashes per year decreased but also the percentage of fatal occupational accidents due to CFIT has declined by 13 percent. In 2005, there were no occupational pilot fatalities in Alaska.

Flight Safety in Alaska: Comparing Attitudes and Practices of High- and Low-Risk Air Carriers
Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine: 2005 / 76:52–57.

Alaska Air Carrier Operator and Pilot Safety Practices and Attitudes: A Statewide Survey
Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine: 2004 / 75:984–991.

Surveillance and Prevention of Occupational Injuries in Alaska: A Decade of Progress, 1990-1999
DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2002-115 (May 2002)
To learn more about Alaska, and the problems that affect workers in this state, click on the link above. A Decade of Progress provides a good overview of the dangerous conditions that many workers in Alaska face in the commercial fishing and aviation industries. The book contains a chapter on commercial aviation that describes the safety problems commercial pilots in Alaska encounter, common situations associated with commercial aircraft crashes in the State, and other risk factors that contribute to the high fatality rate for Alaska commercial aviators.

Factors Associated with Pilot Fatality in Work-related Aircraft Crashes, Alaska, 1990-1999
American Journal of Epidemiology: 2001 / 154:1037-1042.

Controlled Flight into Terrain Accidents Among Commuter and Air Taxi Operators in Alaska
Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine: 2000 / 71:1098-1103

Alaska's Model Program for Surveillance and Prevention of Occupational Injury Deaths
Public Health Reports: 114:550-558 (1999)
To learn more about Alaska's Model Program for surveillance and prevention of occupational injury deaths, please link to the article above, which discusses the usefulness of a collaborative approach to safety programming. Collaborative efforts have contributed to reducing crash rates and mortality Alaska's helicopter logging industry.

Epidemiology of work-related aviation fatalities in Alaska, 1990-94
Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine: 1998 / 69:1131­6

Epidemiology and Prevention of Helicopter External Load Accidents
Journal of Safety Research: August 1998 / 29(2): 107-121

Work-Related Aviation Fatalities - Alaska, 1990 - 1994
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: June 6, 1997 / 46(22);496-498
Aviation-related fatalities are the second leading cause of occupational death in Alaska. During 1990-1994, a total of 876 aircraft crashes occurred in Alaska; of these 405 (46%) were occupational and 106 (12%) resulted in at least one fatality, and 69 (65%) of these were classified as occupational. NTSB determined that pilot error was a cause in 53 (77%) of the fatal occupational aviation crashes in Alaska. The frequency of pilot error in the incidents underscores the need for the development of Alaska-specific Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and training. The Alaska Interagency Working Group for the Prevention of Occupational Injuries has formed an aviation-working group to determine strategies for reducing such crashes.

Risk for Traumatic Injuries for Helicopter Crashed During Logging Operations- Southeastern Alaska, January 1992 - June 1993
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: July 8, 1994 / 43(26);472-5
Helicopters are used by logging companies in the Alaska panhandle to harvest timber in areas that are otherwise inaccessible and/or unfeasible for conventional logging. Helicopter logging operations often place heavy demands on helicopter machinery and associated equipment. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated six helicopter crashes related to transport of logs by cable. According to NTSB investigations to determine probable cause, all six crashes involved "..improper operational and/or maintenance practices" that reflected a lack of inspection of long-line helicopter logging operations.


Related Links to Commercial Aviation in Alaska

FAA Alaska region
The Federal Aviation Administration's Alaska Region pages are full of information on flying in Alaska. The regional office's newest program, Circle of Safety, is part of its passenger awareness and safety campaign, to help prevent commercial aviation crashes.

University of Alaska Anchorage Aviation Technology Division
The University of Alaska Anchorage campus trains many people throughout the state who wish to pursue careers in aviation, including potential pilots, aircraft technicians, and air traffic controllers.

Alaska Air Carriers Association
This non-profit group was formed in 1966 to promote the interests of Alaska's commercial aviation businesses.

Alaska Airmens Association
Established in 1951, The Alaska Airmen's Association is the largest state general aviation group in Alaska. It is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization whose sole purpose is to promote and preserve aviation in Alaska.

NOAA Alaska Aviation Weather Unit
The Alaska Aviation Weather page of the National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides a clickable map with current weather information for pilots and others around the state.

Capstone
Capstone is an innovative safety program that uses avionic (aeronautical electronics) equipment on board Alaska aircraft to improve the pilot's situational awareness of the flight environment. In January 2007, the FAA integrated the Capstone Program into the FAA's Surveillance and Broadcast Services (SBS) Western Service Area office.

NTSB
The National Transportation Safety Board link provided here will take you to its website, where you can link to a searchable database of aircraft crashes.

State of Alaska Department of Transportation Home page
Linking off of the State's DoT home page, you can find a wealth of information about urban and rural airports throughout the state.

 
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  • Page last reviewed: June 23, 2014
  • Page last updated: April 15, 2013
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