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Pacific Coastal Airlines

Crashes, and few answers, hit airline hard  Nov 18, 2008

VANCOUVER — Second multiple-death accident in three months shakes staff, prompting company to shut down float-plane service until crews regain confidence. Executives are at a loss over causes of either crash.

Pacific Coastal Airlines, a well-known regional carrier that has been flying in the province for more than 30 years, is reeling from the emotional and anticipated financial turbulence of two serious crashes by its heretofore reliable Grumman Goose amphibious planes in just over three months.

"It's unreal. Unimaginable," said a shaken Spencer Smith, vice-president of customer service for the family run company.

And so far, the airline doesn't know what hit it. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has yet to determine a cause of the first fatal crash, in August, of a Grumman Goose shortly after takeoff from Port Hardy, in which four passengers and the pilot died.

Nor are there any immediate answers to Sunday's plane crash, which killed the pilot and five employees of the Peter Kiewit Sons mega-construction company. A seventh crash victim has not been identified.

"Obviously, you do think about it, having two crashes in such a short time, and we're questioning what may have caused them," Mr. Smith said yesterday. "But we don't know what to do differently. We're all scratching our head. What can we do?"

All that the TSB has determined to date is that the August mishap was not caused by any malfunction in the aircraft, and board investigators found no reason to bring any safety concerns to the company's attention.

Yet Mr. Smith said the airline could well suffer an economic blow if prospective passengers begin to associate it with accidents. "Of course, it's not our primary focus right now, but that's certainly in the back of our mind."

The tragedy of the loss of life, and the pain and suffering of the victims' families is paramount, but the situation is also frustrating for the airline, the company executive said.

"If we've been negligent, I'll wear that, but we know nothing. Here we are with two crashes in three months, and we're still sitting around without knowing anything. It's a very frustrating feeling."

The company is also having to deal with the emotional fallout among its close-knit staff over the death of the plane's pilot.

While employees grieve, Pacific Coastal Airlines has grounded its float-plane fleet based in Port Hardy, although the firm's fixed-wheel aircraft continue to fly.

"It's not our concern about the equipment [that has grounded the planes]. It's our concern about the mental state of the actual people," Mr. Smith said. "They're all pretty devastated.

"They're a different breed than the instrument flight guys, a little bit of a brotherhood, if you will. So this really hits home to them. They worked very closely with this fellow during the summer, so they knew him on a very personable level."

He said the airline's seven float planes will not return to the air until crews feel comfortable and in the right frame of mind to get back in an airplane. "Until then, we're not operating."

Mr. Smith said the company had no worries over the vintage Grumman Goose. "We are absolutely confident in the aircraft and the age of the aircraft. You wouldn't keep these aircraft around so long if they didn't perform so well."

Crashes, and few answers, hit airline hard
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