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NIOSH - National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

NIOSH Safety and Health Topic:

Commercial Aviation in Alaska

A disproportionate number of all U.S. aircraft crashes occur in Alaska. Between 1990-2006 there were 1441 commuter and air taxi crashes in the U.S. of which 373 (26%) were fatal, resulting in 1063 deaths. Alaska accounted for 513 (36%) of the total U.S. crashes, 75 of which were fatal (20% of the U.S. fatal crashes), resulting in 213 deaths (20% of all U.S. deaths). Alaska’s aircraft crash rate (crashes per 100,000 flight hours) for air taxi and general aviation during 1992-1994 was 2.5 times higher than the U.S. average.

Alaska is particularly dependent on aviation to move people and goods throughout the state. Even though Alaska is very large, it has only 12,200 miles of public roads, approximately the same mileage as Vermont, a state with less than 2% of the land area of Alaska. Furthermore, many of Alaska’s communities are not connected to a highway system. Even if a road is in place, it may not go any farther than the edge of town or may be an ice road (frozen river or stream) that is only usable during winter. Because of this, commuter and air taxi flights must often serve in lieu of a traditional road system. This makes aircraft essential for personal and commercial transportation of passengers, cargo, and mail to outlying communities.

Between 1990-2006, aviation crashes in Alaska caused 142 occupational pilot deaths (does not include military), an average of 9 pilot fatalities per year. These 142 fatalities over 17 years from a commercial pilot workforce of approximately 2600 results in an annual pilot fatality rate of 341 per 100,000 pilots (0.3%). This is equivalent to a 30-year career fatality risk of 9.7% for commercial pilots in Alaska compared to a 30-year career fatality risk of 2.1% for pilots overall in the U.S. This translates to more than a 4-fold increased risk of fatality while working over a 30-year career in Alaska.

In 2000 NIOSH Alaska Field Station formed an aviation safety partnership with several organizations:

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
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Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service (NWS)
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Alaska Air Carriers Association
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Alaska Airmen’s Association
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University of Alaska Anchorage
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This partnership includes NIOSH’s Aviation Safety in Alaska Project which was designed to reduce the number of work-related aircraft crash fatalities in Alaska. This goal is reached by collaborating with industry and organizations to improve our collective knowledge of aviation hazards, and by planning together for safe flying in Alaska. The hypothesis is that NIOSH, in cooperation with other regulatory and industry groups, can reduce the number of work-related aircraft crash injuries in Alaska by:

  • studying the problem scientifically,
  • focusing on the worst problems,
  • building consensus for change, and
  • evaluating interventions for success,

with the goal of reducing occupational aircraft crash fatalities by 50% by the end of 2009.

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

To date the Aviation Safety in Alaska Project has produced tangible results. NIOSH researchers have identified and then focused on the most hazardous problems. The central problem killing people in Alaska aviation has been the continuation of flights into poor visibility conditions (due to inadequate information, equipment, or expertise) resulting in controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). Researchers examined the risk factors associated with CFIT among air taxi pilots in Alaska during 1990 through 1998. Based on this and other research, there have been improvements in both regional technology (e.g., placement of 16 weather cameras across Alaska during 1995–2000) and awareness of the need for specialized training. In Alaska, not only has the number of fatal occupational crashes per year decreased (11 per year during 1990-1999 to 5 per year during 2000-2006), but also the number of fatal occupational accidents due to CFIT declined from 5 per year during 1990-1999 to less than 2 per year during 2000-2006.

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

The Alaska Field Station has conducted research that has contributed to the implementation of several intervention strategies from the aviation safety partnership, such as:

Medallion Program (voluntary higher standard for air carrier operators)
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Capstone Program ( state-of-the-art aircraft navigational avionics equipment)
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Federal Aviation Administration’s Circle of Safety (educational program to increase safety awareness among passengers)
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The Aviation Safety in Alaska Project produces timely information useful to regulatory agencies, industry personnel, pilots, and safety organizations. This information includes surveillance summaries, research findings on risk factors, and evaluations of safety interventions and regulation changes. The partnerships that NIOSH staff have developed with nongovernmental organizations and industry are a critical part of our ability to do work in Alaska. Turning research into practice requires the active participation of these regulators, industry, and workers.

Published Reports on Commercial Aviation Safety

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

Flight Safety in Alaska: Comparing Attitudes and Practices of High- and Low-Risk Air Carriers
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Conway GA, Mode NA, Berman MD, Martin S, Hill A, Aviat Space Environ Med 2005; 76:52–57.

Alaska Air Carrier Operator and Pilot Safety Practices and Attitudes: A Statewide Survey
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Conway GA, Hill A, Martin S, Mode NA, Berman MD, Bensyl DM, Manwaring JC, Moran KA, Aviat Space Environ Med 2004; 75:984–991.

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

Factors Associated with Pilot Fatality in Work-related Aircraft Crashes, Alaska, 1990–1999
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Diana M. Bensyl, Katherine Moran, and George A. Conway, Am. J. Epidemiol. 2001 154: 1037-1042.
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Controlled Flight into Terrain Accidents Among Commuter and Air Taxi Operators in Alaska
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T. K. Thomas, D. M. Bensyl, J. C. Manwaring, G. A. Conway, Aviat Space Environ Med 2000; 71:1098-1103 (Journal Article)

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

Epidemiology of work-related aviation fatalities in Alaska, 1990-94
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Garrett LC, Conway GA, Manwaring JC. Aviat Space Environ Med 1998; 69:1131­6. (Journal Article)

Epidemiology and Prevention of Helicopter External Load Accidents
Journal of Safety Research Volume 29, Issue 2, Summer 1998, Pages 107-121 (Journal Article)

Work-Related Aviation Fatalities - Alaska, 1990 - 1994
MMWR June 6, 1997/Vol.46/No.22
Aviation-related fatalities are the second leading cause of occupational death in Alaska.  During 1990-1994, a total of 876 aircraft crashes occurred in Alaska; of these 405 (46%) were occupational and 106 (12%) resulted in at least one fatality, and 69 (65%) of these were classified as occupational.  NTSB determined that pilot error was a cause in 53 (77%) of the fatal occupational aviation crashes in Alaska.  The frequency of pilot error in the incidents underscores the need for the development of Alaska-specific Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and training.  The Alaska Interagency Working Group for the Prevention of Occupational Injuries has formed an aviation-working group to determine strategies for reducing such crashes.

Risk for Traumatic Injuries for Helicopter Crashed During Logging Operations- Southeastern Alaska, January 1992 - June 1993
MMWR July 8, 1994/Vol. 43/No. 26
Helicopters are used by logging companies in the Alaska panhandle to harvest timber in areas that are otherwise inaccessible and/or unfeasible for conventional logging. Helicopter logging operations often place heavy demands on helicopter machinery and associated equipment. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated six helicopter crashed related to transport of logs by cable. According to NTSB investigations to determine probable cause, all six crashes involved "..improper operational and/or maintenance practices" that reflected a lack of inspection of long-line helicopter logging operations.

Fatality Investigation Reports (conducted under the FACE Program)
Since the inception of the FACE program in 1982, several fatal incidents have been investigated by NIOSH. This link provides a list of those cases which in turn links to the full-text reports on the FACE Web.

Related Links to Commercial Aviation in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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Capstone is an innovative safety program that uses avionic (aeronautical electronics) equipment on board Alaska aircraft to improve the pilot's situational awareness of the flight environment.

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The National Transportation Safety Board link provided here will take you to its Alaska pages, where you can link to records of aviation crashes in the state.

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

Page last updated: December 12, 2007
Page last reviewed: April 18, 2007
Content Source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Commercial Aviation in Alaska

Small commercial float plane docked in marina

Topic Index:

Commercial Aviation in Alaska
Commercial Aviation Fatality Investigation Reports
State-based Reports

Related Resource:

Traumatic Occupational Injuries