Sightseeing Plane Collision Kills Four Cruise Passengers

File image courtesy Alaska.org

Published May 14, 2019 1:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two sightseeing float planes carrying passengers from one cruise ship collided in midair near Ketchikan, Alaska on Monday afternoon, killing at least four and injuring ten. Two people remain missing. 

The U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement that it continues to search for the missing passengers in the vicinity of George Inlet. The cutter Bailey Barco, two Station Ketchikan response boats and a Jayhawk helicopter out of Air Station Sitka are assisting in the search. The U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Ketchikan Fire Department, Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad, Alaska State Troopers and helicopter operator TEMSCO Aviation are also participating in the response. 

"In a remote area such as this, given our limited resources, we rely on our partner agencies and appreciate the support that good Samaritans have rendered to this point," said Capt. Stephen White, Coast Guard Sector Juneau commander. "With the loss of life in this case, we know that the impact to Alaska is immense and our thoughts are with the community here." 

The survivors are all in fair or good condition, according to PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center. 

Investigation under way

The sightseers aboard both airplanes were all passengers from the cruise ship Royal Princess, which was on a port call in Ketchikan. 10 were on board a De Havilland Otter float plane operated by local company Taquan Air, and four were aboard a Beaver float plane operated by an independent company. Taquan Air has suspended all of its flights and is working with NTSB and FAA investigators. 

"Our entire team and aviation family is devastated by recent events and we are extremely grateful for the outpouring of support from our neighbors and friends from around the world," the company said in a statement. "Our hearts go out to the passengers, pilots and families of both flights. Flights have been canceled until further notice."

The cause of the collision is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB. 

In a statement, Princess Cruises said that "we are deeply saddened to report this news and our thoughts and prayers are with those who lost their lives and the families of those impacted by today's accident." The cruise line added that it is extending its full support to Royal Princess passengers who were accompanying the individuals involved in the crash. 

As of Tuesday morning, the Royal Princess was under way once more, making 15 knots and bound for Juneau.

Shore excursion liability

John "Jack" Hickey, a plaintiff's attorney who spent much of his career representing cruise lines, said that the cruise industry should bear a measure of responsibility for shore excursion accidents. 

"When something like this happens, the cruise lines point to the fine print on their websites which says that the excursion is an independent contractor and the cruise line does nothing to vouch for their safety," Hickey said. "There should be a doctrine in the law which makes the cruise line automatically responsible for any negligence of the contractors it selects if the activity is inherently dangerous."

Hickey pointed to past Taquan Air crashes as an illustration of the potential risks. A Taquan Air aircraft went down on Prince of Wales Island in 2018; a Taquan-operated sightseeing plane crashed with eight fatalities in 2015; and a Taquan Air float plane crashed with four fatalities near Ketchikan in 2007.  

An average of about 100 light aircraft crashes occur every year in Alaska, according to NTSB data, though the number has been in decline in recent years.