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Congress approves bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 16:36

FILE- In this June 19, 2020, file photo, protesters chant as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) (John Minchillo/)

WASHINGTON — The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation.

The House voted 415-14 Wednesday to make Juneteenth, or June 19th, the 12th federal holiday. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That was also about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Southern states.

It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.

“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United. States.”

[Juneteenth events happening around Anchorage this month]

Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaking next to a large poster of a Black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, said she would be in Galveston this Saturday to celebrate along with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

“Can you imagine?” said the rather short Jackson Lee. “I will be standing maybe taller than Senator Cornyn, forgive me for that, because it will be such an elevation of joy.”

The Senate passed the bill a day earlier under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements.

“Please, let us do as the Senate. Vote unanimously for passage,” Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., pleaded at one point with his colleagues.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and had 60 co-sponsors. Democratic leaders moved quickly to bring the bill to the House floor.

Some Republican lawmakers opposed the effort. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said creating the federal holiday was an effort to celebrate “identity politics.”

“Since I believe in treating everyone equally, regardless of race, and that we should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences, I will vote no,” he said in a press release.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, voted in favor of the bill.

The vast majority of states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.

Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said he would vote for the bill and he supported the establishment of a federal holiday, but he was upset that the name of the holiday included the word independence rather than emancipation. “Why would the Democrats want to politicize this by coopting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?” Higgins said.

“I want to say to my white colleagues on the other side, getting your independence from being enslaved in a country is different from a country getting independence to rule themselves,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., replied, adding, “We have a responsibility to teach every generation of Black and white Americans the pride of a people who have survived, endured and succeeded in these United States of America despite slavery.”

Former chiropractor faces additional sexual assault charges

Juneau Hot Topics - Wed, 2021-06-16 16:22
A former Juneau chiropractor facing multiple charges of sexual assault in April had ... The Empire still leases space from SEARHC for its press operations. ... that served the local Indigenous population, according to court documents.

Better elections, the Alaska way

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 15:59

Absentee ballots being scanned for tabulation at the Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Last November, Alaskans from a wide array of beliefs and political ideologies voted to make some long-overdue and exciting changes to our elections. These changes will shine a light on dark money, so we know who’s trying to sway our elections; they will create an open primary with one ballot, so all Alaskans have a say in who represents us; and they will implement a uniquely Alaskan form of ranked-choice voting, ensuring that every winner is elected with a majority. All these changes will benefit Alaskans, regardless of where they land on the political spectrum.

As a lifelong Alaskan, I was honored to play a role on the committee that championed these changes. If this were an ordinary campaign committee, the day after the election victory, we would have cleaned out our desks and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done. But Alaskans for Better Elections (ABE) is not an ordinary campaign committee. Our group is made up of Alaskans from all walks of life, of all ages, from every region across the state, who are committed to listening to and working with every voter so that we will all understand these changes before we step into the voting booth next fall.

The ultimate goal? That every Alaskan feels confident with how to cast their ballot under our new ways of voting and can see the positive impacts of the new Alaska-style elections. We take seriously the responsibility to build trust with the public and properly showcase this new election style. Regardless of what you may have heard, the new election system was designed specifically with Alaska in mind, and these changes are unique, new and 100% Alaska-grown. The goal from the beginning has been to give all Alaskans more choice, more voice, and more power in our elections.

We are not satisfied to just sit back and hope that happens. Over the next year and a half, our team will proactively take the lead in educating fellow Alaskans about these changes and will be making ourselves available to listen to your concerns and answer questions, to help ensure that Alaska has a world-class election experience in 2022.

You will see us around the state at town hall events, local festivals, or even at your local brewhouse or coffee shop, offering assistance and imparting correct information, so you’ll know what to expect when you vote in 2022. We hope you can come by and talk to us, listen to what this new system means for you, and offer suggestions, because this is about giving all Alaskans a voice, not just in voting itself, but in how our elections are conducted.

Naturally, not every person will have the chance to attend a live event or join in online conversations, which is why we have a robust website (www.AlaskansForBetterElections.com), just brimming with information. It also has a contact button, so you can send us questions or suggestions, and a “get involved” tab, if you want to join us in our efforts to help educate our neighbors.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the help, leadership, and partnership of the Alaska Division of Elections. One thing I have discovered in this whole process is how fortunate we are as a state to have such devoted and skilled people managing our elections, and I have complete confidence that with the changes brought about by this new law, Alaska’s elections will go more smoothly than ever.

I am excited to see these uniquely Alaska-style elections at work and would like to thank Alaskans for caring enough about our state to vote for a brighter future. This new system was crafted without any agenda or planned outcome, other than to make Alaska’s elections as fair and truly representative as possible and give voters more power; a power that can build a brighter and more prosperous Alaska for all for years to come.

Jason Grenn is a fourth-generation Alaskan and former independent Alaska State Representative. He now serves as the Executive Director for Alaskans for Better Elections.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

From eggs to smolt: Release of king salmon raised at Anchorage hatchery marks next phase of life cycle

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 15:58

Harold Richards removes dirt and pebbles from a salmon he caught in Ship Creek in Anchorage on June 9, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Early on a recent Wednesday morning, anglers in Anchorage lined Ship Creek and cast lines to catch returning chinook salmon.

Just minutes after 6 a.m., shouts of “fish on!” fluttered across the shore.

“Uncle! Uncle!” Marvin Richards yelled to Harold Richards. The top of his rod was bouncing as it rested in a holder.

Harold Richards grabbed the rod, moved it sharply up and to his right and hooked a salmon. His nephew grabbed a net and ran to the shore to help guide the chinook in.

With a grin that spanned the width of his face, Richards placed the fish in the grass and set the line again next to his nephew.


Anglers cast their lines in Ship Creek at 6 a.m. to fish for salmon. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Similar scenes unfolded throughout the morning thanks in part to an ongoing effort from staff at the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery, where each year they raise the next salmon that will mature in the wild and return to Ship Creek in three to five years.

There, Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish culturists have raised the newest group of king salmon, which started as eggs last July and grew into smolt this spring. It’s part of an endeavor that’s been happening at the Anchorage hatchery for years.

It all begins with the yearly eggtake from chinooks returning to Ship Creek, a uniquely urban waterway that partially flows along the edge of downtown Anchorage. After the eggs are fertilized, they’re loaded into incubators surrounded by warm lights that mimic the color of the tens of thousands of orange eggs.


Eggs spill into a bucket from an adult female king salmon during an eggtake at the hatchery on July 22, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
Fish culturist Tim VanGelderen adds a light saline solution mixed in water to a bucket containing king salmon eggs and milt on July 23, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
Fish culturist Scott Cunfer adjusts trays used to hold eggs during incubation in July, 2020 . (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

For months, it was up to fish culturists Scott Cunfer and Tim VanGelderen to keep these eggs alive and ensure their growth into fry. Long nights, daily checks and frequent cleanings are just a portion of the list when it comes to this job.

“I’ve just always enjoyed watching animals grow,” said Cunfer, who grew up around farm animals. “It’s just enjoyable to watch these fish get bigger and bigger … and to see it all happen in front of your eyes at such a quick pace.”

By mid-January, the fish weighed about 3 grams and were transferred to the production floor, Cunfer said. From there, fish culturists Cody Block and Greg Carpenter took over. Continued months of monitoring, disease control and cleaning took place as the salmon grew.


Scott Cunfer holds a newly hatched king salmon on Oct. 5, 2020. At this stage, the salmon's yolk sac is still attached and is providing essential nutrients for fin and organ growth. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
Nearly 87,000 salmon fry swim around a tank as they adjust to life outside of the incubation room on November 16. Once they outgrow this 2190-gallon tank they will be transferred to a larger tank. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
Scott Cunfer transfers trays of salmon fry into net baskets in November. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
Water flows through tubes as salmon fingerlings are transferred to a larger tank at the hatchery on Jan. 19, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
King salmon fingerlings flow through a tube that leads to a counter and large tank at the hatchery in January. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

“You worry about it all the time,” Carpenter said about the health of the fish during their time at the hatchery.

Earlier this month, the salmon were transferred to outdoor raceways that contained Ship Creek water. The fish imprint on this water, ensuring their eventual return, for about five days before being released.


Hatchery staff begin to remove barriers from the outdoor raceways to allow salmon smolt to be released into Ship Creek on June 7, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
A small king salmon swims to the surface of the outdoor runway. The salmon were held in the runway in order to imprint on Ship Creek water and were released into the creek about five days later. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Staff then released the 580,000 chinook salmon smolt into the creek.

Kids, teenagers and adults watched the release as harlequin ducks swam to the edge of the fish ladder, hoping to catch an afternoon snack.


A fish ladder extends into Ship Creek as thousands of king salmon smolt run through it and into the water. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
People gather at a viewing area at the hatchery and watch as salmon smolt are released. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

“We’re putting these fish out there in order to give (people) a good opportunity … to enjoy this culture, heritage of fishing,” Cunfer said.

In the next six weeks, fish culturists will transfer 3.2 million fish out of the hatchery and into Alaska’s water sources, Carpenter said.

Just a few miles downstream from the hatchery, anglers have been gathering along the waterway in downtown Anchorage to catch returning adult salmon who left the hatchery as smolt years ago.


People bring a king salmon to shore from Ship Creek while fishing on June 9. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Marvin Richards, who has been fishing most of his life, said it was his uncle Harold who got him into the activity.

They and cousin Mary Walker, all originally from Holy Cross, spent the morning watching the water intently and waiting for their next bite.

“That’s good eatin’,” Owen Brooks said after he helped Robert Rozelle bring in a king a couple hundred feet down the shore.

A 20-pound chinook caught by George Elgarico was that morning’s showstopper.

“It’s rewarding to see people actually catch the returning cohos and kings,” Carpenter said. “It’s just a continuous cycle every year.”


Johnny Aguilar, left, and George Elgarico lift a king salmon and weigh it.The salmon, caught by Elgarico, weighed in at just over 20 pounds. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

Anchorage Mayor-elect Bronson to hold town hall on homeless shelter proposal

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 15:56

Anchorage Mayor-elect Dave Bronson speaks to the Anchorage Assembly to present preliminary plans to address homelessness on June 15, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

Mayor-elect Dave Bronson will hold a public town hall meeting Thursday to discuss his administration’s newly released plan to address homelessness in Anchorage.

The proposal, first revealed to the public Tuesday, would construct a large shelter and “navigation center” capable of housing up to 400 people on Anchorage Police Department land near the intersection of Elmore and Tudor Road.

[Bronson administration details ambitious plan for East Anchorage homeless shelter]

Thursday’s town hall will be held from 5-7 p.m. at the Wilda Marston Theater, located inside the Loussac Library at 3600 Denali St. in Anchorage.



Wasilla doctor pleads guilty to federal charge of illegally distributing controlled substances

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 15:55

An Alaska doctor this month pleaded guilty to illegally distributing narcotics to his patients at Camelot Family Health clinic in Wasilla, where he specialized in pain management and family medicine.

Under a federal plea agreement, Dr. David Chisholm, 64, is required to surrender his state medical license. He also faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a $1 million fine, plus three years of supervised release.

Chisholm illegally and routinely “prescribed thousands of pills of highly addictive controlled substances” — including oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl — to patients who had not undergone a medical exam, and he issued prescriptions without a legitimate medical purpose, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska said in a statement Wednesday.

The violations were discovered through an undercover investigation that revealed that “Chisholm’s prescription of these controlled substances was one of the significant contributing factors in the accidental deaths of five patients,” federal prosecutors said.

Court documents indicated that Chisholm’s violations had begun at a time unknown to a grand jury and continued up to or until late October 2020.

Chisholm will be sentenced at a later date by a federal district court judge.

The case is being investigated by the FBI, the DEA and the Alaska State Board of Pharmacy and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Schroeder, according to federal prosecutors.

Anchorage SWAT team trying to apprehend man inside home near Lake Otis and Dowling, police say

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 15:34

A SWAT team and crisis negotiators with the Anchorage Police Department are trying to apprehend a man believed to be armed inside a residence south of East Dowling Road, police said Wednesday afternoon.

Officers initially responded at 1:16 p.m. to a home on the 6200 block of Petersburg Street after a report of a possible burglary in progress, police said in an alert.

Petersburg Street is closed from East Dowling Road south to East 64th Avenue. Police are asking the public to avoid the area and refrain from posting pictures or videos of the scene.

Officers might deploy gas or use other tactics to try to apprehend the man, and police asked those nearby to follow their instructions, including evacuating if necessary.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

It’s time to go back to the doctor’s office. In person this time.

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 15:09

(Pixabay)

I am a primary care doctor who runs our chronic disease and preventive care initiatives at Massachusetts General Hospital, and in these waning days of the pandemic, my clinic often feels like a family reunion that has gone really well. I get to catch up with people I have known for almost a decade - many of whom I haven’t seen in well over a year - and make a difference in their lives. But those reunions aren’t always happy: Every other week for the last two months, I have diagnosed one of my patients with cancer. That has never happened before in my 10-year career.

As headlines abound about the grand reopening of our country, we’re all making plans. Long-overdue vacations are now on the calendar and the rental car apocalypse has arrived. Many are reuniting with family they haven’t seen in more than a year and videos of people hugging again are going viral. One big thing seems to be missing from everyone’s list: getting back to the doctor’s office. I want to offer some general advice about your own reemergence into society: Don’t delay your health care any further.

The pattern in each of my cancer cases was the same: Patients did not reach out with highly concerning signs and symptoms like unintentional weight loss, months of persistent diarrhea, or severe fatigue, or chose to delay a screening test like a CT scan or a colonoscopy because they were afraid of covid-19. If you are sitting on a new or mysterious symptom - especially one you’ve ignored throughout the pandemic - or have delayed a recommended screening test, the time to act is now. We never reversed the catastrophic messaging from the early days of the pandemic that health-care settings were unsafe or too overwhelmed to provide non-covid care. The messaging to stay away from health-care settings was incorrect and circumstances have changed: Health-care providers are open and ready to care for you safely and effectively. Your chance of getting covid at the doctor’s office is probably far lower than almost anywhere else you might go.

Meanwhile, those with chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure need to reestablish routine care, even if they feel like nothing has changed with their health. Thousands of patients with chronic health conditions were lost to follow-up during the pandemic and they are not yet banging down our doors to reconnect. I run a series of programs that keep score on how well we care for more that 190,000 primary care patients in eastern Massachusetts. During the pandemic, our overall rate of disease control declined by 17.4% for patients with diabetes (defined by a well-controlled blood sugar checked within six months) and by 18.1% for patients with high blood pressure (defined by a well-controlled blood pressure checked within six months). Initially, we explained away this decline by the fact that we were forced to close our doors by the state of Massachusetts. However, we have been fully open and available to our patients for months and our rates of chronic disease control remains 7% below pre-pandemic levels for diabetes and a whopping 12% below pre-pandemic levels for hypertension. Our total volume of primary care patient visits year-to date, including all telehealth, is still 19% lower than it was in 2019. This is despite an extensive media campaign, thousands of email messages, and many outreach calls to our patients. I would have expected a nationwide surge in outpatient visits to make up for the many thousands of routine immunizations and screening studies that were missed or delayed during the pandemic, but that surge has not yet emerged.

Primary care physicians are also well-equipped to help their patients grapple with many of the concerns that have arisen during the pandemic’s long months of isolation and anxiety. Numerous surveys performed over the past 12 months should raise a high degree of concern about a rising tide of depression, anxiety, alcohol and opiate use. Multiple studies have found that symptoms of depression across the population are three- to sevenfold higher than pre-pandemic. An estimated 81,000 people died of drug overdose in the 12 months of 2020 alone, the highest number on record. Similar alarm bells are ringing about alcohol use.

Many are struggling, but help is available. It starts by taking the most difficult step: coming forward and sharing what you are going through. Primary care doctors are very comfortable managing most cases of depression and anxiety. We have medications that help reduce cravings for alcohol and opiates. Increasing numbers of health systems have built substance use disorders teams led by specially trained addiction medicine physicians, recovery coaches, psychologists and nurses who can help with alcohol or opiate use without stigma or judgment.

There are still far too many barriers to accessing high-quality, affordable health care for all people in the United States. Fortunately, the relief packages and emergency measures passed during the pandemic offer some glimmers of hope. The Biden administration dramatically increased eligibility to purchase health insurance on the exchanges by opening a special enrollment period through Aug. 15, 2021, accessible through healthcare.gov and the Marketplace Call Center at 1-800-318-2596. Simultaneously, many health systems are actively growing their primary care patient base, though finding a primary care doctor in the United States remains much harder than it needs to be.

Getting care isn’t just on patients, of course. I have no doubt that the decline in chronic disease control and prevention has disproportionately impacted patients of color, patients with limited English proficiency and patients with limited insurance. Health systems will have to respond by dedicating resources like community health workers and navigators to better support these communities.

Even now, I still have some days where my schedule is only half full. It haunts me that I am diagnosing more cancer than usual while watching appointment slots go unfilled. Together, these two facts should be a reminder that there’s reason to both seek out care and to expect that it will be waiting for you when you go looking for it. If you are afraid of what your symptoms might portend, avoiding the potential financial impact of seeking health care or simply overwhelmed by the return to work or school, I would urge you to keep it simple: Reach out to your doctor’s office or your local clinic and get in to see someone as soon as you can.

Daniel Horn, M.D. is a primary care physician and director of population health for the Division of General Internal Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Senators <b>press</b> Interior Secretary Haaland on oil lease pause

Juneau Hot Topics - Wed, 2021-06-16 13:33
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Interior subcommittee, said she was flabbergasted that Haaland did not ...

Millions of Americans fear eviction as housing crisis forecast to worsen after pandemic

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 13:09

NEW YORK — More than 4 million people say they fear being evicted or foreclosed upon in the coming months just as two studies released Wednesday found that the nation’s housing availability and affordability crisis is expected to worsen significantly following the pandemic.

The studies come as a federal eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the month. The moratorium has kept many tenants owing back rent housed. Making matters worse, the tens of billions of dollars in federal emergency rental assistance that was supposed to solve the problem has not reached most tenants.

The housing crisis, the studies found, risks widening the gap between Black, Latino and white households, as well as putting homeownership out of the reach of lower class Americans.

The reports were released on the same day as Census Bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse Survey came out. It showed that nearly 4.2 million people nationwide report that it was likely or somewhat likely that they will be evicted or foreclosed upon in the next two months.

Many of those tenants are waiting to see what becomes of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measure, which is set expire June 30. Housing advocates are pressuring President Joe Biden’s administration to extend it. They argue extending it would give states the time to distribute more than $45 billion in rental assistance and protect vulnerable communities from Covid-19. The rental assistance has been slow to reach tenants.

“The latest data confirm two things - emergency rental assistance is very slow to reach renters in need, and millions of renters remain behind on rent and at heightened risk of evictions,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said in an email interview.

Among those confronting the June 30 deadline is Victor Richardson. The 78-year-old, who is disabled and in a wheelchair, is facing eviction from his $2,500-a-month assisted living center in Tucson, Arizona, and has a court hearing early next month.

“We have been successfully fighting this and I’ve come to believe we are going to come out this victoriously,” said Richardson, who housing advocates said would not be admitted to a homeless shelter because of his disability.

The reports by Harvard University and the National Association of Realtors come from different perspectives, but ultimately reach the same conclusion: the United States isn’t building enough housing to address population growth, causing record low home availability, and rising home prices are putting homeownership out of reach of millions of Americans.

Without substantial changes in homebuilding and home affordability, both reports say, the result will be a more-or-less permanent class of renters contrasted with what will likely be a mostly white class of homeowners. While these problems were known before the coronavirus pandemic, the economic impact of the pandemic exacerbated the problem, the reports say.

“These disparities are likely to persist even as the economy recovers, with many lower-income households slow to regain their financial footing and facing possible eviction or foreclosure,” researchers at Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University wrote.

A separate study commissioned by the National Association of Realtors found that the U.S. housing market needs to build at least 5.5 million new units to keep up with demand and keeping home ownership affordable over the next 10 years. That’s on top of the roughly 1.2 million units built per year on average, or a roughly 60% increase in home construction for the next decade, just to keep up with demand.

“The scale of underbuilding and the existing demand-supply gap is enormous and will require a major national commitment to build more housing of all types by expanding resources, addressing barriers to new development and making new housing construction an integral part of a national infrastructure strategy,” wrote Kenneth Rosen, David Bank, Max Hall, Scott Reed and Carson Goldman with the Rosen Consulting Group, in its report to NAR.

The National Association of Realtors report points out several regions requiring more homes, including many parts of California and the West, Southern Florida, and the Northeast, particularly the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area.

Without additional housing, an increasing share of Americans are likely to become renters in the coming years. While renting is not necessarily a bad thing since it provides more flexibility, homeownership has been the primary driver of wealth generation in the U.S. since World War II. Home equity is often a way for Americans to have a financial safety net at times of economic trouble, as seen in the pandemic.

These problems get worse when broken out by racial backgrounds. Black and Latino homeowners have less in savings than their white counterparts. White potential homeowners also have generational wealth to potentially tap in the form of a down payment.

“The diverging circumstances between those with the resources to weather the economic shutdowns and those struggling to simply stay afloat thus widened already large inequalities in income and wealth,” said the Harvard researchers.

Outside of a massive increase in homebuilding, researchers at Harvard pointed to government home affordability programs as likely the best solution to address the problem long term.

“Any of a number of new proposals to provide down payment assistance to socially disadvantaged buyers would potentially bring millions of low-income households and households of color into homeownership.”

Commercial aviation is essential to life in Alaska. It’s also home to a growing share of the country’s deadly crashes.

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 12:35

[Video by Brooke Warren]

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with KUCB Unalaska and CoastAlaska and is being co-published by the Anchorage Daily News.

On a clear day in May 2019, the tourist season was just starting up in Ketchikan, a city of 8,000 that had become a cruise ship hot spot. For Randy Sullivan, that meant another day — his fifth in a row — of flying sightseeing tours and charters.

Sullivan and his wife, Julie, owned Mountain Air Service, a single-plane family business that had allowed Randy to realize his dream of becoming his own boss. Randy was born and raised in Alaska. He grew up in Ketchikan and had been flying in the area for more than 17 years. He, more than most, knew the dangers of commercial aviation in the state.

“When Randy first started flying up here in Alaska, he learned from some of the best pilots up here and he valued everything they taught him,” Julie said. “Safety was number one for Randy.”

For the 10 a.m. flight, his first of the day, he met his four passengers from the Royal Princess cruise ship at the dock. They boarded his single-engine, propeller-driven, red-and-white floatplane for a tour of Misty Fjords National Monument, 35 miles northeast of Ketchikan. This picturesque landscape, filled with glacial valleys and steep cliffs, is such a popular and crowded flightseeing destination that local operators banded together a decade earlier to create their own voluntary safety measures for flying in the area, including designating radio channels for communication and routes for the planes to follow.

After noon, Sullivan’s de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver was on its way back to town. Another commercial carrier, Taquan Air, was flying one of its own airplanes, also on a flightseeing tour, back to Ketchikan. The two planes collided at about 3,350 feet. The accident destroyed the Beaver and killed all five aboard, including Sullivan, as well as one passenger from the Taquan Air plane. All 10 survivors were injured.


Julie Sullivan’s husband, Randy, was killed in a plane crash in 2019. She has the tail number of the plane Randy flew tattooed on her wrist. (Ash Adams for ProPublica)

Shannon Wilk lost three family members in the midair collision, including her brother Ryan, who was on Sullivan’s plane.

“I didn’t think the next time I’d be in the same room with him, he would be in a casket,” Shannon said. The crash also claimed the lives of Ryan’s wife, Elsa, and Elsa’s brother, Louis Botha. “I thought he’d get home, we’d keep getting pictures, we’d talk about it and we’d just keep going.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent governmental agency that investigates transportation accidents, eventually determined that the pilots of the aircraft saw each other too late to take evasive action, calling it an example of the limitations of avoiding midair collisions by relying only on what pilots can see through the window.

Fatal midair collisions involving commercial aircraft are practically unheard of in the rest of the country, but in Alaska, there have been five in the past five years alone. In each of them, at least one plane either lacked a key piece of optional safety equipment or wasn’t using it properly.

More broadly, in recent years Alaska has made up a growing share of the country’s crashes involving small commercial aircraft, according to an investigation by KUCB and ProPublica. In the past two decades, the number of deaths in crashes involving these operators has plummeted nationwide, while in Alaska, deaths have held relatively steady. As a result, Alaska’s share of fatalities in such crashes has increased from 26% in the early 2000s to 42% since 2016. Our analysis included crashes involving at least one plane or helicopter flying under the Federal Aviation Administration’s typical rules for commuter, air taxi or charter service. (The flight safety record of large air carriers is strong in both Alaska and nationally.)

[How we tallied Alaska aviation deaths]

Alaska’s increased share of aviation deaths can be attributed, at least in part, to its continued reliance on smaller operators, which have worse safety records than large airlines but appear to have waned in popularity outside the state, according to experts.

In interviews with KUCB and ProPublica, federal officials, lawyers and aviation safety experts said the FAA, which oversees air travel in the country, carries much of the responsibility for improving aviation safety in the state. Some say the agency has been slow to adopt rules and provide additional support for the unique conditions in Alaska, leaving pilots and customers to fend for themselves. Some critics also say the FAA has struggled to hold operators accountable for questionable safety track records.

While it has long been known that flying in Alaska is more dangerous than in the Lower 48, there are fewer safeguards in the state than almost anywhere else in the country. Because much of Alaska is considered uncontrolled airspace, pilots flying in large areas of the state have limited access to weather and traffic information.

That leaves pilots, many of whom come to the state to get their first commercial flying experience, on their own to navigate rapidly changing weather, mountainous terrain and challenging landings at small rural airports with unpaved, poorly lit runways. Flights can turn deadly even in the hands of experienced pilots.

Alaska’s Growing Share of Small Commercial Aircraft Fatalities

The state’s share of deaths from crashes involving commuter, air taxi and charter planes made up an increasing portion of the country’s total in the past decade.


Note: Each bar in the chart depicts the percentage from the preceding five years; the listed year is the last in the range (i.e. the bar labeled 2020 represents the share from 2016-2020). Crashes involved at least one aircraft that fell under Part 135 of the FAA’s regulations. (Agnel Philip/ProPublica; Source: National Transportation Safety Board)

The NTSB has been among the most vocal entities pushing the FAA to change its approach in the state. The NTSB is responsible for making recommendations to prevent future accidents, but it lacks the authority to enact them. Following a roundtable meeting in 2019 focused on improving small-plane aviation, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation asking the FAA to review and prioritize Alaska’s aviation safety needs and ensure it’s making progress on implementing safety enhancements.

“I think the FAA has acknowledged that they can do something. They have indicated a willingness to make some improvements,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “We want them to quit studying this issue. We want them to move forward and implement this.”

[What we know about Alaska’s recent series of fatal flight collisions]

The FAA, however, hasn’t implemented many of the NTSB’s recent safety recommendations, including requiring small operators to collect and analyze their flight data in ways that many large commercial air carriers do voluntarily. The NTSB also has asked the FAA to install equipment throughout Alaska that would allow pilots to fly using navigation systems, which is safer than operating by sight, especially when pilots encounter poor weather and visibility.

The FAA declined an interview request but said in a written statement that it had created a new program, the Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative, to look at how the agency is providing resources to the state, their effectiveness, and what more can be done. This group is seeking feedback from the aviation community on the most pressing issues.

“Improving aviation safety in Alaska has long been and remains one of the FAA’s top priorities,” the agency said in its statement. “The FAA’s approach is based on the understanding that safety is a journey, not a destination, and our work will never be done.”

Some experts say additional regulations may not effectively address existing safety concerns and instead put the onus on individual operators to raise their standards.

“Additional rules are not necessarily the immediate answer,” said Jens Hennig, vice president of operations at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and a member of several FAA rule-making committees. “In many cases, realizing that level of safety gets into many intangible things. What’s the safety culture in the operator? I can’t regulate that.”

Hennig and others say companies can adopt many tools and technologies to improve safety, although they acknowledge that the FAA could do a better job of outreach in Alaska.

One week after the May 2019 crash that killed Randy Sullivan and five others, another Taquan Air floatplane, a type of aircraft that allows for water landings and is popular in Alaska, flipped upon landing in Metlakatla’s harbor and killed 31-year-old epidemiologist Sarah Luna and pilot Ron Rash. It was Rash’s first commuter flight with Taquan.


Sarah Luna (Courtesy of Laura Luna)

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s failure to compensate for an off-center tailwind while landing. New pilots, like Rash, were not expected to perform tailwind landings, so they were not taught how to do them during Taquan’s flight training, the NTSB said in its final investigation report. Also contributing to the crash, according to the NTSB, was Taquan’s decision to assign an inexperienced pilot to a destination prone to challenging downdrafts and changing wind conditions.

Taquan declined requests for an interview.

In a letter to the NTSB in 2020, Taquan’s chief pilot said the company had identified significant safety issues, including pilot competency and hazards in water takeoffs and landings. In response, it added pilot competency checks, created checklists to grade new hires on certain tasks, and requires each new pilot to get a minimum of 10 hours of initial operating experience.

Luna’s parents said she knew the risks inherent in commercial aviation in Alaska. But her dedication to her work at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and her commitment to improving the health of Alaska Native people were greater than her fear. Luna began working in Alaska in June 2018 as part of the consortium’s liver disease and hepatitis program. The flight to Metlakatla, where she’d be meeting patients in person, was her first floatplane ride and her first trip off the road system.

“What happened is not acceptable,” Sarah’s mother, Laura Luna, said in March. “Even though it’s almost two years, it’s like it happened yesterday.”

‘Aviation is kind of a lifeline’

Flying in the country’s largest state is unlike flying anywhere else. Because of the state’s small, spread-out population, commercial aviation is dominated by small planes. While larger planes fly to hub communities like Bethel, Nome or Unalaska, they cannot fly to smaller villages because there’s neither the passenger demand nor the infrastructure to support them.

About 80% of Alaska communities are not on the road system, and for the people who live in those places, flying is simply unavoidable. Planes serve as buses for kids traveling to sporting events and other school activities. They transport pregnant women to hospitals where they can safely deliver, and they carry residents to medical appointments not available in their hometowns. They take sexual assault victims to big cities for forensic examinations.

“In Alaska, aviation is kind of a lifeline,” said John Hallinan, a retired FAA flight standards officer who worked at the regional office in Anchorage. “If you shut down service for any particular reason, there’s an impact that’s felt within the community.”

But Alaska lacks infrastructure that is standard in the Lower 48. For example, it has 235 state-owned rural airports, of which only 47 are paved. Plus, rural airports are not staffed at all hours of the day.

“What it means is you’re on your own more,” said Tom George, the Alaska regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national nonprofit aviation group. “The weather you see out the window is the weather you have to consider and use as your basis for making decisions, as opposed to being able to call up on the radio and find out 50 to 60 miles ahead of you what conditions are like at the moment.”

Despite the state’s inherent dangers, there are limited safeguards in place.

When most people fly commercially in America, they travel on large jet planes from companies like Delta, United and American Airlines. These airlines face the strictest regulations because fatal crashes involving these planes have killed large numbers of people. For example, their pilots typically need to have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience.

While some large air carriers do operate in Alaska, particularly the eponymous Alaska Airlines, there are far more small, often piston or turboprop planes that are well-suited to the state’s unique terrain and limited infrastructure. Pilots for small operators, like Taquan Air, can have as little as 500 hours of experience. They can also fly more hours annually than pilots working for large carriers and are subject to different rest-time requirements.

Nationally, commuter, air-taxi and charter flights were involved in fatal crashes at a far higher rate than large air carrier flights in the past decade.

But it isn’t possible to calculate what the crash rate of small commercial flights was in Alaska compared to the rest of the country because such calculations require knowing the varying amounts of activity between different areas. But the FAA doesn’t release data on the number of flight hours for most of these operations by state or region, and it denied a Freedom of Information Act request from the news organizations because the data is collected and kept by a third-party contractor on behalf of the FAA. KUCB and ProPublica have appealed the denial.

In 1972, a plane crashed on its way to Juneau carrying then-U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and Rep. Nick Begich of Alaska. The plane has never been found.

On Aug. 9, 2010, a float-equipped 11-seat airplane carrying guests from a company lodge owned by telecom company GCI to a camp for an afternoon of fishing crashed into mountainous tree-covered terrain about 10 miles outside of Aleknagik, a small city in the Bristol Bay region. The crash killed the pilot and four passengers, including former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who had survived a 1978 plane crash that killed his first wife. The four surviving passengers were seriously injured.

The Stevens crash was strongly felt in the state’s aviation community, as he had been a champion for additional funding and Alaska-specific modifications to federal aviation regulations.

“Anybody that lives here knows somebody, it seems, that has died in an accident. People that are this close to a lack of safety are very invested in making it better,” Hallinan said. “Sen. Stevens was very invested in trying to get Alaska up to some kind of level of safety that was on par with the contiguous 48 states.”

Last July, the private plane of Alaska State Rep. Gary Knopp and a chartered plane carrying six people collided on the Kenai Peninsula, killing all seven. And in March, five people — including the Czech Republic’s richest man, billionaire Petr Kellner — were killed on a heli-skiing trip when their helicopter crashed near Knik Glacier.

Combating ‘bush syndrome’

It’s been 41 years since the NTSB first issued a special report on air-taxi safety in Alaska. Data collected between 1974 and 1978 showed that the nonfatal air-taxi crash rate was almost five times higher than the rate in the rest of the nation, and the fatal crash rate was more than double.

The study found three main culprits for Alaska’s high crash rate: “bush syndrome,” defined as a pilot voluntarily taking on unnecessary risks to complete a flight; substandard airport facilities and poor communication of airfield and runway conditions; and inadequate weather information and navigational aids.

Fifteen years later, the NTSB published another safety study specifically about Alaska, which reiterated many of the same concerns, saying pilots and operators faced pressure to provide reliable air service in “an operating environment and aviation infrastructure that are often inconsistent with these demands.”

“I cannot tell you how many phone calls I’ve gotten over the years from people in Unalaska and other parts of the state, calling me personally on my cell phone, saying, ‘Why did you cancel the flight? The winds are not blowing now,’” said Danny Seybert, the former owner and chief executive of PenAir, once Alaska’s second-largest commuter airline, which offered scheduled passenger service as well as charters. PenAir closed in 2020 following a series of bankruptcies and a fatal 2019 plane crash in Unalaska while under the ownership of Ravn Air Group. “There’s a lot of pressure generated from people that live and work in these communities to travel on time and exactly when the flight is scheduled to go, no matter what.”

The FAA has embarked on numerous programs to improve safety in the state. For example, in 1999, the agency began a program to deploy weather cameras that would help provide a near-real-time view of conditions in sites across Alaska. Some 230 cameras have been installed.

One of its most significant efforts occurred between 1996 and 2006, when a joint industry and FAA research project called Capstone equipped aircraft in Southeast Alaska and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the western part of the state with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast systems. The ADS-B tech and its associated ground infrastructure was hailed as a marked improvement over traditional radar systems because it could provide information on weather and the location of nearby aircraft to pilots in areas radar didn’t reach before.

In the Y-K Delta, the aviation accident rate decreased by 47% between 2000 and 2004, after the Capstone project began.

The FAA deemed the project so successful that it moved to implement ADS-B nationwide. However, the rule only applies to most controlled airspace, which the agency defines in a way that excludes most of Hawaii and Alaska. According to Hennig, the GAMA vice president, Alaska lags far behind the rest of the country in terms of ADS-B-equipped planes.

The cost of ADS-B has gone down over the years. Today, Garmin sells full ADS-B devices for $5,295. The costs are relatively minor for even small operators, especially compared to the cost of their planes.

Some pilots, like Mountain Air’s Randy Sullivan, chose to install the technology because of its safety enhancements.

“(Randy) wanted to have the ADS-B in his plane because he knew how many floatplanes flew in the area and he wanted everybody to see him and to be able to see them,” Julie Sullivan said. “It was very important to have that device in his aircraft.”


Randy Sullivan’s son, Spencer, wears a hoodie with the tail number of his late father’s plane printed on the back. (Ash Adams for ProPublica)

Not enough deaths to bring about change

On Oct. 2, 2016, two pilots departed the Quinhagak Airport in the Y-K Delta with one passenger, headed for a 70-mile trip to Togiak. This was the pilots’ third of five scheduled flights that day, on a route that would ultimately bring them back to Bethel.

The captain, Timothy Cline, had worked for Hageland Aviation Services Inc. since 2015, while the second in command, Drew Welty, was in his first flying job, having finished flight training that spring at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Just before noon, the turboprop Cessna 208B Grand Caravan collided with steep mountainous terrain, killing everyone on board.

Cline’s widow, Angela, told investigators that her husband was a fantastic pilot and that she didn’t believe this accident could have happened without some mechanical error, according to notes of the interviews included in the NTSB report. Cline had lost two friends in plane accidents in recent years — one had died two months before — and while he was a little worried, he didn’t have any specific concerns. “The accidents made him more safe and he did not take any chances. (Cline and his wife) had a fantastic life together and he did not ever want to lose that,” according to a summary of the interview. She could not be reached for this article.

The NTSB found the probable cause of the accident to be the pilots’ decision to continue flying into deteriorating weather and visibility. But the agency also cited Hageland’s policies, inadequate training and poor FAA oversight as contributing factors.

In May 2014 — two and a half years before the Togiak accident — the NTSB issued an urgent recommendation for the FAA to audit all aviation operations and training for operators owned by Hageland’s then-parent company HoTH Inc. This followed a 16-month period where the NTSB investigated five accidents involving Hageland aircraft and another incident in which one of its planes went off the runway. The audit resulted in at least 20 changes to company operations or policies, including flight training, aircraft maintenance and evaluating the riskiness of flights.

A number of associated entities — Ravn Air Group Inc., Ravn Air Group Holdings LLC, JJM Inc., HoTH, PenAir, Corvus Airlines Inc., Frontier Flying Service Inc., and Hageland Aviation Services — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2020. Many of the assets have since been sold and are now operated by new owners. Representatives for Hageland are winding down the estate of the former operating entity and declined to comment on this story.

The Togiak crash is one of Alaska’s most recent accidents that resulted in NTSB recommendations for improvement, including providing small commercial operators with access to better weather information. Nearly five years after the crash, none have been fully adopted by the FAA.

“The thing is the FAA has always been good at reacting to an accident and establishing a requirement after a major crash,” said Tom Anthony, director of the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program and a former FAA regional division manager for civil aviation security in the Western Pacific.

Experts noted that the nature of crashes in Alaska — typically involving small aircraft with few casualties — partly explains why those accidents get limited attention. When there are enough fatal accidents, said Hallinan, the retired Anchorage FAA flight standards officer, the issue gets more attention, which can help speed up changes in regulations and improve safety.

“Safety comes at a cost. It comes down to the flow of money. It’s awful to think about it like that,” he said. “What it comes down to (is) the expense that you can ask of a 737 operator versus what you can ask of somebody that is operating a couple of (small planes) — there’s just a different level of burden that’s associated with that.”

Sumwalt agreed. “I think perhaps from a policy point of view, once you have a large number of accidents, a large number of fatalities, that’s when it really gets the attention of the right people to make things happen,” he said. “I’m certainly not suggesting we need more fatalities, but I think oftentimes it is blood that gets things done in Washington.”

Unadopted recommendations

The FAA doesn’t always move forward with the NTSB’s recommendations, and the agencies have disagreed more often in recent years.

A KUCB and ProPublica analysis of NTSB data found the safety board deemed that the FAA didn’t take adequate action on 37% of the recommendations it closed in the past decade, up from 20% in the 2000s and 15% in the 1990s. Other agencies within the Department of Transportation also saw increases over that time, but the FAA, which received far more recommendations than others, had among the highest overall percentages.

“I think it’s important to note that the NTSB doesn’t just pull safety recommendations out of thin air and say, ‘You need to do this,’” Sumwalt said. “These recommendations are written in blood. They’re a result of tragic, tragic accidents and crashes. And so therefore, we think it’s imperative that the regulator move forward with implementing these recommendations and implementing them in a timely fashion.”

Some of the unadopted recommendations relate to cost. The FAA is required by law to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before issuing new regulations; NTSB recommendations are not subject to that requirement. Sometimes the FAA opts to implement voluntary measures or guidance to improve safety rather than making the changes mandatory.

The FAA and NTSB often agree on the nature of a problem, but political forces get in the way of change, said Anthony, the former FAA regional division manager.

“In almost all cases, the FAA is in concordance with the NTSB on these recommendations, but there is frequently political pushback to say, ‘No, we don’t want that regulation. We shouldn’t have it. It’s too expensive. Can’t do it,’” he said. “I was actually shocked when different aviation organizations would say, ‘No, we don’t want to do that’ (to) ideas we felt in our division were obviously needed.”

The FAA said in its statement that it “has a close working relationship with the NTSB” and pointed to its progress on some of the NTSB’s recently released top priorities for 2021 and 2022. For example, the FAA has started drafting rules to mandate safety-management systems, which standardize how companies evaluate and manage risk, for charter and air-taxi operators.

These systems have been required for large air carriers since 2015 but have been voluntary for everyone else. The NTSB first proposed mandating them for small commercial operators in 2016. Currently only 20 of 1,940 small commercial operators nationwide have an FAA-approved system.

Mike Slack, a Texas-based aviation attorney who represents multiple clients involved in Alaska plane crashes, said the FAA has failed to adequately oversee individual companies. He sent a letter to the agency in April 2019 expressing concern that the Taquan Air pilot in a 2018 crash — when a plane carrying 10 passengers from a remote fishing lodge to Ketchikan flew into the side of a mountain — should have been sanctioned by the FAA. Seven months later, FAA officials responded saying the agency had “used appropriate mechanisms to address safety concerns with the pilot.”

In May 2019, the month after Slack’s letter was sent, Taquan Air had two fatal crashes.

“The FAA could have made a difference in preventing those two crashes,” said Slack, who represents Julie Sullivan and her family in their claims against Taquan Air, which he says have been settled. But he said in hindsight it is clear Taquan didn’t do anything meaningful to address safety concerns. “The FAA just looked the other way.”

The FAA said multiple offices examined the performance of the pilot in the 2018 crash and determined the evidence did not support revoking his credentials.

As a result of the collision between Sullivan’s plane and the Taquan plane, a group of 14 Ketchikan commercial operators — including Taquan — modified their voluntary safety measures and agreed to equip all of their aircraft with full ADS-B systems. Taquan also requires its pilots sign a document agreeing to abide by the new guidelines.

Taquan declined to comment, stating that it is “referring all questions to the NTSB.” Six separate cases filed in federal court by crash victims against Mountain Air, Princess Cruises and Venture Travel, which does business as Taquan Air, were confidentially settled in April. This month, another wrongful death suit filed against Taquan in state court was settled. In that case, brought by the families of two Mountain Air passengers, Taquan denied claims that the company has a “significant, documented history of unsafe operations” and that it was liable for the deaths.

What the future holds


Randy and Julie Sullivan and their children. (Courtesy of Sullivan Family)

Nearly two years after the midair collision in Ketchikan that killed Randy Sullivan and five others, the NTSB board gathered virtually to vote on the findings, probable cause and safety recommendations stemming from their investigation.

Until COVID-19 hit, the NTSB, headquartered in Washington, D.C., had never held a virtual board meeting. But because of the pandemic, this was the agency’s 12th virtual board meeting in 51 weeks, and most staff had replaced their background with the official NTSB backdrop in varying shades of blue.

While both planes were outfitted with full ADS-B systems, the NTSB concluded, the Taquan plane wasn’t broadcasting its altitude because a piece of equipment was turned off. The NTSB was not able to determine who turned off the equipment, but the last time this plane broadcast its altitude was two weeks before the accident. Without this information, the iPad application Sullivan used to look at ADS-B data could not provide visual or spoken alerts of the impending collision. Sullivan’s tablet was destroyed during the accident, so the NTSB was unable to determine whether he was using it or how the application was configured. Taquan’s ADS-B was incapable of providing visual or spoken alerts even if it had been turned on.

Following this accident, the NTSB issued safety recommendations encouraging the FAA to identify high-traffic air tour areas — not only in Alaska, but also in Hawaii and the Lower 48 — and require the use of ADS-B technology when flying in those areas. Furthermore, the NTSB asked for all commuter and charter operations, regardless of where they fly, to be fully equipped with ADS-B so that aircraft will be able to see each other’s locations.

“From the earliest days of powered flight, pilots have been taught to avoid other airplanes by watching out for them,” Sumwalt said in a post-board-meeting press release. “This accident clearly demonstrates why that’s just not enough. Our investigation revealed that it was unlikely that these two experienced pilots could have seen the other airplane in time to avoid this tragic outcome.”

Interested Alaskans had to wake up early to attend the meeting, which began at 5:30 a.m. local time. Julie Sullivan was one of those tuned in. She got up around 4 a.m for a pre-board-meeting call for survivors and family members of the victims. She had a friend come over to her house for support, and they watched the meeting together.

It was a relief to see the meeting held, but it was hard for her to watch animations of the crash. Though the NTSB doesn’t fault either pilot for the accident in their final report, Sullivan believes the report holds her husband responsible for a collision he couldn’t have seen coming due to the other plane’s location and technological problems, and that it does not factor in Taquan’s recent history of crashes.

Shannon Wilk — who lost three family members in the same midair collision that killed Randy Sullivan — often feels hopeless and helpless. She doesn’t live in Alaska, and while she doesn’t want anyone else to lose a loved one in an accident, she doesn’t feel like she has the power to change the state’s system, with its history of commercial crashes.

“When you see that these crashes continue to happen and you see that more well-known people have died in these kinds of crashes and still nothing is being done about it, little you is not going to be able to do anything about it,” Wilk said.


The Sullivan family has settled their claims against Ketchikan-based Taquan Air. (Ash Adams for ProPublica)

RELATED STORIES:

What we know about Alaska’s recent series of fatal flight collisions

How we tallied Alaska aviation deaths

GLOSSARY

Large air carrier: Flights conducted under the FAA’s Part 121 regulations, which typically apply to jet planes with at least 10 passenger seats.

Commuter: Flights conducted under the FAA’s Part 135 regulations that are done on a set schedule and carry up to nine passengers. (Helicopter flights don’t have seating restrictions.)

Air taxi or charter: Flights conducted on demand under the FAA’s Part 135 regulations. These typically include air tours and medical evacuation flights that can carry up to 30 passengers. (Helicopter flights don’t have seating restrictions.)


Alaska Senate fails to pass budget, leaving state on track for July 1 government shutdown

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 12:32

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate has failed to pass a budget, leaving the state on track to shut down July 1.

The vote was 10-8, one short of the 11 required to pass the budget needed to keep state services functioning.

The state House passed the budget last night but only partially funded it.

Immediately after the failed vote, senators left their chambers to talk behind closed doors. A revote in the Senate is possible as soon as this afternoon.

This article is developing and will be updated.

Federal Reserve forecasts earlier time frame for interest rate hikes as inflation rises

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 12:17

Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell appears before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington in December. The Federal Reserve signaled Wednesday that it may act sooner than previously planned to start dialing back the low-interest rate policies that have helped fuel a swift rebound from the pandemic recession but have also coincided with rising inflation. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool, File) (Susan Walsh/)

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve signaled Wednesday that it may act sooner than previously planned to start dialing back the low-interest rate policies that have helped fuel a swift rebound from the pandemic recession but have also coincided with rising inflation.

The Fed’s policymakers forecast that they would raise their benchmark short-term rate, which influences many consumer and business loans, twice by late 2023. They had previously estimated that no rate hike would occur before 2024.

In a statement after its latest policy meeting, the Fed also said it expects the pandemic to have a diminishing effect on the economy as vaccinations increase, thereby allowing for more growth.

“Progress on vaccinations has reduced the spread of COVID-19 in the United States,” it said. “Amid this progress and strong policy support, indicators of economic activity and employment have strengthened.”

Taken as a whole, the Fed’s latest policy statement reflected its recognition that the economy — and inflation pressures — have gained momentum in the wake of the recession much faster than expected, thanks in part to the pace of vaccinations.

Accordingly, the central bank raised its forecast for inflation to 3.4% by the end of this year, from 2.4% in its previous projection in March. Yet the officials foresee price increases remaining tame in the following two years. That outlook reflects Chair Jerome Powell’s view that the current inflation spikes stem mainly from supply shortages and other temporary effects of the economy’s swift reopening from the pandemic.

Fed officials expect the economy to grow 7% this year, which would be the fastest calendar-year expansion since 1984. It projects, though, that growth will slow after that, to 3.3% in 2022 and 2.4% in 2023.

Soon after the Fed issued its statement Wednesday, U.S. stocks fell further from their record highs, and bond yields rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose from 1.48% to 1.55%.

In addition to having pegged its key rate near zero since March of last year, the Fed has been buying $120 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds to try to hold down longer-term rates to encourage borrowing and spending.

The Fed officials are widely believed to have begun discussing a reduction in those monthly bond purchases at the policy meeting that ended Wednesday — a first step in pulling back on its efforts to stimulate the economy. There was no mention of paring those bond purchases in the written statement the Fed issued after the meeting.

The Fed is grappling with a dilemma: Inflation is rising much faster than it had projected earlier this year. And America’s increasingly vaccinated consumers are now comfortable venturing away from home to travel, go to restaurants and movie theaters and attend sporting events. Solid consumer spending is accelerating economic growth, and manufacturing and housing have significantly strengthened.

Yet hiring hasn’t picked up as much as expected. Monthly job growth has remained below the 1 million-a-month level that Powell had said in April he would like to see, though employers are clearly interested in hiring more, having posted a record number of available jobs.

Since December, the Fed has said it wants to see “substantial further progress” toward its goals of full employment and inflation modestly above 2% before it would begin tapering its bond purchases.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Powell said he expected the job market to improve significantly through the summer and into fall as more vaccinated people grow comfortable about taking jobs involving face-to-face contact with the public and as expanded federal jobless benefits end.

“There is every reason,” Powell said, “to think that we will be in a labor market with very attractive numbers, with low unemployment, high participation and rising wages across the spectrum.”

With inflation having spiked in the past two months, the Fed is under rising pressure to consider slowing those bond purchases. But with the unemployment rate at a relatively high 5.8% and the economy still 7.6 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic level, Powell and many other Fed policymakers have suggested in recent weeks that the economy is still far from achieving that progress.

Economists generally expect the Fed to continue discussing tapering its bond purchases and then — by late August or September — to outline specifically how and when it would begin. That would set the stage for a reduction in bond purchases to actually begin near the end of this year or in early 2022.

Last week, the government reported that inflation jumped to 5% in May compared with a year earlier — the largest 12-month spike since 2008. The increase was driven partly by a huge rise in used car prices, which have soared as shortages of semiconductors have slowed vehicle production. Sharply higher prices for car rentals, airline tickets, and hotel rooms were also major factors, reflecting pent-up demand as consumers shift away from the large goods purchases many of them had made while stuck at home to spending on services.

Prices for such services, which had tumbled at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, are now regaining pre-pandemic levels. With more people gradually returning to work in person, the reopening of the economy has also forced up prices for clothing. Yet such price increases may not last.

Another key consideration for the Fed is whether inflation persists long enough to affect the public’s behavior. If Americans begin to expect price increases, those expectations can trigger a self-fulfilling cycle as workers demand higher wages, which, in turn, can lead their employers to keep raising prices to offset their higher labor costs.

So far, bond yields and consumer surveys suggest that while higher inflation is expected in the short term, investors and most of the public expect only modest price gains in the long run. Powell has long maintained that the public’s perceptions of future inflation evolve only slowly.

How we tallied Alaska aviation deaths

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 11:22

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with KUCB Unalaska and CoastAlaska and is being co-published by the Anchorage Daily News.

A KUCB and ProPublica analysis has found that in recent years, Alaska has accounted for a growing share of the country’s fatalities from crashes involving small commercial aircraft.

Since 2016, 42% of the country’s deaths in these crashes occurred in Alaska, up from 26% in the early 2000s. And in recent years, the state has seen a series of midair collisions involving commercial flights, a type of crash that has largely been eliminated in the rest of the country thanks to greater oversight by the federal government and advances in technology.

[Commercial aviation is essential to life in Alaska. It’s also home to a growing share of the country’s deadly crashes.]

Experts point to the state’s unique hazards, such as mountainous terrain, unpredictable weather patterns and limited safety infrastructure, when explaining why fatal crashes are more common in Alaska than elsewhere.

In the past two decades, the number of deaths in crashes involving small commercial aircraft has plummeted nationwide, while in Alaska, deaths have held relatively steady. But detailed analyses of Alaska’s aviation crash patterns have been limited, in large part because of the lack of public Federal Aviation Administration data concerning these small operators, which include air taxis, air tours and medical evacuations. The news organizations’ analysis attempted to bridge some of these gaps.

Large air carriers vs. small commercial operators

Companies such as United, Delta and Alaska Airlines are known as large air carriers or Part 121 operators because they operate under that section of the FAA’s federal regulations when ferrying passengers and cargo. Flights under Part 121 face the strictest standards, owing to the risks associated with carrying large numbers of passengers and to the greater resources at their disposal. These types of flights rarely crash, accounting for only four of the nearly 2,300 fatal crashes in the U.S. in the past decade.

Small commercial operators typically fall under the FAA’s Part 135 regulations, which are less strict than Part 121. For example, pilots can have as little as 500 hours of experience compared with the 1,500 hours required of pilots flying under Part 121. Nationwide, Part 135 flights had a fatal crash rate 75 times higher than Part 121 flights in the past decade, according to National Transportation Safety Board reports.

There are two types of Part 135 operations: scheduled, also known as commuter, and the much more common nonscheduled, which includes air taxis, charters, air tours and many medical evacuation flights. (In our investigation, we refer to the unscheduled group collectively as air taxis or charters.) There are small differences in the regulations that apply to each: Nonscheduled plane flights (as opposed to helicopter flights) can carry up to 30 passengers (compared to nine for scheduled flights) and typically face slightly looser standards, such as a higher maximum number of hours pilots can fly in a year. Among scheduled and nonscheduled Part 135 flights in the past decade, nonscheduled Part 135 flights made up the vast majority of fatal crashes both nationwide and in Alaska.

Most other aviation falls under the FAA’s general aviation regulations, known as Part 91, which is typically meant for private individuals flying their own aircraft. These regulations are the loosest, and this type of aviation makes up the vast majority of all fatal crashes in the country. There are some commercial flights that can be conducted under these rules, but these weren’t consistently marked in the data used to track aviation crashes.

KUCB and ProPublica focused this analysis on commercial passenger and cargo flights conducted under Part 135. Passengers pay to take these flights just as they do a flight with a major carrier. But while there is a high expectation of safety from major carriers, Part 135 flights are much more dangerous.

[What we know about Alaska’s recent series of fatal flight collisions]

Comparing Alaska to the rest of the country

Counting fatal crashes by flight type and region of the country is possible with publicly available data, and that led to our finding that Alaska accounted for a growing share of fatalities nationally. However, overall flight activity by flight type and region for air taxis and charters is not publicly available, which made it impossible to tell if Alaska has a disproportionate share of Part 135 fatalities when accounting for its higher share of these flights. The FAA collects this information but doesn’t publicly report data on flight activity.

The FAA uses a survey to generate yearly estimates of total flight activity for those categories, but the results published on the FAA’s website don’t separate these types of operations at the state or regional level.

The FAA declined to provide the survey results by region and type of operation, saying it was against the agency’s policy to calculate new figures for outside entities. A Freedom of Information Act request for the source data was denied, with the agency saying all the data from the survey is collected and maintained by a third-party contractor. KUCB and ProPublica have appealed the denial.

How we did it

The news organizations used NTSB crash data to tally fatal crashes. The NTSB collects and reports data on all aviation accidents in the country. From this data, we were able to calculate Alaska’s share of fatalities from small commercial aircraft crashes.

Our finding that Alaska has seen a series of midair collisions involving commercial flights relied on the NTSB’s midair collision flag to identify those crashes. We then filtered this subset to crashes that involved aircraft covered by Part 135 rules.

The news organizations also analyzed the causes of commercial crashes in the state using the NTSB’s crash data and found no significant disparities between Alaska and the rest of the country. Pilots involved in fatal crashes had similar levels of experience on average, although the data didn’t specify how much they had flown in Alaska specifically. Environmental factors such as weather weren’t cited more frequently in Alaska’s fatal crashes either. Experts said this might be due to challenges with determining causes of the state’s crashes.

Finally, the news organizations analyzed the status of NTSB recommendations using data downloaded from the board’s website. We looked at all recommendations closed by the board between 1991 and 2020 and calculated the percentage of recommendations closed with “unacceptable action,” meaning the target agency disagreed with the recommended action and decided not to implement it or has not taken action to implement the recommendation. We compared this percentage across the three decades and found the FAA’s percentage of recommendations designated as unacceptable action increased from 15% in the 1990s to 20% in the 2000s to 37% in the 2010s. We also compared this to other agencies within the Department of Transportation and found similar increases. The FAA received the most recommendations and had among the highest overall percentages of unacceptable action decisions.

What we know about Alaska’s recent series of fatal flight collisions

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 11:20

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker/ProPublica

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with KUCB Unalaska and CoastAlaska and is being co-published by the Anchorage Daily News.

Even though much of Alaska has uncongested airspace, in recent years it has seen a series of midair collisions involving commercial operators.

In the past five years alone, there have been five such fatal collisions. There haven’t been any in the rest of the U.S. since 2009. (There was one fatal midair collision involving a for-hire sightseeing plane in Idaho last year, but it flew under the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations typically meant for private aircraft.)

The collisions have prompted some to call for increased use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) systems, which can alert pilots to the presence of other planes flying nearby. The technology has been associated with a decrease in all accidents and is required in nearly all of the lower 48 states. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the technology was either not installed or not functioning properly in at least one of the planes involved in each of the five crashes in Alaska.

Below are details of the state’s five midair collisions. Two are still under investigation by the NTSB, meaning the probable cause of the accident has not yet been identified.


Locations of the five fatal midair collisions involving small commercial aircraft in Alaska since 2016. (Ken Schwencke/ProPublica)

Aug. 27, 2020

Location: Fairbanks

Fatalities/injuries: Two people were killed, two injured.

What happened: Two planes collided at Chena Marina Airport 3 miles west of Fairbanks International. One plane, operated by Flying Moose Alaska LLC, carrying two hunters from a remote camp, was landing and the other was taking off.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: This accident is still under investigation and no safety recommendations have yet been issued.

Responses: KUCB and ProPublica tried to connect with a representative of Flying Moose Alaska, but the owner was the pilot and died in this accident. The private pilot of the other plane did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment.

July 31, 2020

Location: Soldotna

Fatalities/injuries: All seven people on both planes were killed.

What happened: Alaska State Rep. Gary Knopp was piloting his private plane south of Anchorage when it collided with a chartered plane that was carrying six people to a remote lake for a fishing trip, killing all seven. The NTSB’s preliminary report revealed that Knopp was flying illegally; he had been denied a medical certificate in 2012 due to vision problems from glaucoma.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: This accident is still under investigation and no safety recommendations have yet been issued.

Responses: High Adventure Air Charter, operator of the chartered flight, declined to comment. The day of the accident, the company acknowledged on Facebook that one of its planes was involved in the fatal midair collision. The company stated that it supported the NTSB investigation and said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the families involved in this tragic accident.” Families of the crash victims filed federal suits against the estate of Knopp and his widow, Helen, as well as the companies that owned the charter plane and the estate of the charter pilot. The defendants in the suits have denied negligence claims and filed cross-claims against one another. A trial will take place next year. Knopp’s widow and the estate settled with the estate of another passenger in May in a separate state case. The charter plane operators and the estate of its pilot settled with the same passenger’s estate out of court last year.

About two weeks before the crash, an FAA inspector had recommended that High Adventure Air Charter equip its plane with ADS-B, but a co-owner expressed concern about the cost, according to NTSB interviews conducted in the course of their investigation.

May 13, 2019

Location: Ketchikan

Fatalities/injuries: Six people were killed, 10 injured.

What happened: When returning to Ketchikan after a flightseeing tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument, two floatplanes collided at about 3,350 feet. Both planes were carrying passengers from the Royal Princess cruise ship. The crash claimed the lives of six people, including the Mountain Air Service pilot who was flying one of the planes, his four passengers, and one passenger from the other plane, flown by Taquan Air. Following the accident, Taquan Air suspended all flights for several days. Mountain Air Service — a one-plane and one-pilot outfit — ceased operations.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: The NTSB issued safety recommendations, one of which encourages the FAA to identify high-traffic areas, like Ketchikan, and require the use of ADS-B technology for air-tour operators in those areas so that planes will be able to see each other’s locations. The NTSB also reiterated a past safety recommendation that calls for mandating safety management systems — which can help companies evaluate and manage risk — for air-taxi, charter and commuter operations.

Responses: Taquan declined to comment. Julie Sullivan, the widow of the Mountain Air pilot, has settled all claims against Taquan Air, according to her lawyer. Six separate suits brought by crash victims in federal court against Mountain Air, Princess Cruises and Venture Travel, doing business as Taquan Air, were settled in April. This month another wrongful death suit brought in state court against Taquan was settled. In that suit, filed by the families of two Mountain Air passengers, Taquan denied claims that the company has a “significant, documented history of unsafe operations” and that it was liable for the passengers’ deaths.

June 13, 2018

Location: Anchorage

Fatalities/injuries: One person was killed, none injured.

What happened: Two planes collided west of Anchorage at about 1,000 feet. One of the planes, a commercial flight by Spernak Airways Inc., crashed into the Big Susitna River, killing the pilot. Although damaged, the private plane involved in the collision was able to land safely at an airport. The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident was that the pilots did not see and avoid each other.

Resulting changes in policy/safety recommendations: No safety recommendations came from this crash. However, about four years before this accident, following a series of midair collisions in the same area, the FAA made “significant changes” to the radio frequencies used for communication between pilots there.

Responses: Spernak Airways declined to comment. On Facebook on June 13, 2018, the company wrote, “We lost a dear friend and pilot today. Thank you for your support and understanding during this difficult time.”

Aug. 31, 2016

Location: Russian Mission

Fatalities/injuries: All five people aboard both planes were killed.

What happened: A scheduled Ravn Connect flight and a Super Cub operated by Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures Inc. collided near Russian Mission. An NTSB performance and visibility study showed that the airplanes would have been visible to each other for about two minutes before the crash. Neither plane had operational navigational aids that would have alerted its pilot to the presence of the other plane.

The NTSB’s final report on this accident included information on preventing similar accidents, including a safety alert that explains the importance of pilots looking for other aircraft while flying even in low-traffic areas and communicating their plane’s position using available technology. Following two other midair collisions in 2015, the NTSB also held a presentation on midair collisions and issued two safety recommendations to educate air-traffic controllers about the circumstances of these crashes.

Responses: Hageland Aviation Services Inc., which was doing business as Ravn Connect, contested part of the NTSB’s investigation and submitted its own report stating the Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures pilot had an “inadequate visual lookout” and didn’t yield the right-of-way to the Hageland pilot. Representatives for Hageland declined to comment.

In an email to KUCB and ProPublica, Wade Renfro, an owner of Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures, said his company is limited in what it can say about this accident due to pending litigation. However, an expert retained by the company concluded that this midair collision was the fault of the Hageland pilot because the Renfro plane had the right-of-way, and the Hageland pilot failed to see and avoid the Renfro plane.

Several wrongful death suits involving the two companies have been settled or dismissed in state court.

Man and woman found dead after apparent murder-suicide in downtown Fairbanks office

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 11:16

A man and woman were found dead in a downtown Fairbanks office early Tuesday, police said.

“The preliminary investigation indicates that the adult male shot the female and then shot himself,” the Fairbanks Police Department wrote in an online statement Wednesday.

An infant and 6-year-old boy were found at the scene uninjured, police said. The boy had used an iPad to contact family after the shooting, and a family member called 911, police said.

Officers arrived at the office on the 200 block of Cushman Street around 2 a.m. Tuesday to conduct a welfare check, police said.

The names of the deceased will be released once their identities are confirmed by the medical examiner’s office, police said. The children are being cared for by family, police said.

Juneau leaders reject $2 million pandemic-aid donation from cruise line

Alaska News - Wed, 2021-06-16 09:54

A floatplane prepares to land in the Port of Juneau Tuesday, May 14, 2019 as a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship is moored at the AJ dock. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU - Juneau city leaders have declined a $2 million donation from Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. amid concerns from some Assembly members about the public perception of accepting the money.

The company, which operates Norwegian Cruise Line, last month announced plans to donate $10 million total to Alaska port communities with tourist economies hit hard by the lack of cruise ship passengers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company has purchased an empty waterfront lot in Juneau, where it wants to build a dock, KTOO Public Media reported.

City and Borough of Juneau Assembly Member Carole Triem cited the proposed dock as factoring heavily in her decision to vote against accepting the money.

“I just think that to accept money from NCL, even though it’s totally separate from the decisions we’d be making about this development project, just is not a good look for us,” she said.

Assembly member Wade Bryson said the path for the company getting a dock is already charted out. He said rejecting the donation would be “foolish and fiscally irresponsible.”

The Assembly asked the city manager to suggest to the company donating the $2 million directly to an organization instead of the city.

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