ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The National Transportation Safety Board is calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to increase regulations on aerial sightseeing tours over the Ketchikan region after a report detailed operators have done little to minimize the risks posed by the area’s ever-changing weather.
A recently released federal report detailed a series of crashes since 2007 that have killed 31 people and injured more than a dozen others, with many of the incidents tied to the mountainous terrain and weather conditions.
Alaska's Ketchikan region is home to stunning, untouched landscape that weaves through rocky terrain, which is a popular destination for tourists to visit during the late spring and summer.
Around a dozen companies operate air tours in the region, but federal investigators said voluntary responses by companies to adjust operations after crashes have not been effective.
Aviation experts said a persistent onshore wind from the southwest tends to carry moisture in from the Pacific Ocean, which can cause visibility to quickly diminish during clouds and rain.
Investigators said pilots’ responses to the fast-changing weather under visual flight rules (VFR) is not an effective approach to avoid air hazards.
"There have been too many air tour tragedies in Ketchikan, a place with unique — but well understood — safety hazards that endanger the lives of pilots and passengers alike," NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a statement.
The NTSB encourages the National Weather Service and the FAA to develop air-tours regulations for the Ketchikan area and require pilots to enroll in training programs to better understand the region’s dynamic weather patterns.
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The report said FAA regulations put in place after tragic incidents over the Grand Canyon and Hawaii have proven to be effective at reducing fatalities, and similar regiments over southeast Alaska should be adapted.
"Special federal aviation regulations have effectively reduced air-tour accidents in other areas, saving untold lives. We need the same safety leadership now — before there’s yet another tragedy in Ketchikan," Homendy stated.
A spokesperson for the FAA responded in part to the report saying, "The FAA takes NTSB recommendations seriously and will respond to the agency within an appropriate timeframe."
The agency said it is in the midst of improving weather data reporting and expanding satellite guidance across the Last Frontier as part of a 2021 safety initiative.
The FAA plans to meet with air tour operators in the spring to discuss recommendations to improve safety in the region.