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Daily News-Miner: Marking 20 years since fatal Alaska Airlines crash

By: Alistair Gardiner

Twenty years ago today, an Alaska Airlines jet carrying 88 people plummeted into the Pacific Ocean. Flight 261 had taken off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and was heading to San Francisco.

After the pilot reported mechanical problems, the flight was diverted to Los Angeles for an emergency landing. At roughly 4:36 p.m. the plane went down about 40 miles from the Los Angeles airport.

None of the 83 passengers or five crew members survived.

Brad Tilden, current CEO of Alaska Airlines, released a statement regarding the 20-year anniversary of the crash.

“All 23,000 of us at Alaska are grieving for the families and loved ones of those lost on Flight 261, including the 12 people who were working for Alaska and Horizon at the time of the crash. We apologize for this tragedy, and we commit to do everything we can every day, and on every flight, to hold Alaska to the highest standard of safety. We do this because it’s the right thing to do and as a legacy to those who lost their lives.”

Marking the anniversary

Marilyn Romano, who has served as the regional vice president for Alaska Airlines since 2011, said that the company is marking the anniversary of the accident in a number of ways. Five years ago the airline invited family members of the deceased to Seattle to meet various employees involved in flight safety, she said.

“And we did it again a couple of weeks ago,” she said Thursday. “We invited family members to come to Seattle to meet members of our maintenance and engineering team, our safety team, and our leadership as well. We talked about how we look at safety and what we do around safety.”

Romano said it’s an opportunity for the group to hear firsthand, and in a private setting, just how significantly the airline treats the issue of safety.

Alaska Airlines leaders are also attending a number of memorial services and remembrance events. Following the crash, a memorial was erected on a beach in Port Hueneme, California, which is near where the plane came down.

“It’s a sundial. It has the names of all 88 people who were on that flight,” Romano said. “There is a private gathering of our leadership and any family members who wanted to come. And there will be something else again (today).”

Those events are coordinated by family and friends of the victims. Today, the airline itself is holding a remembrance event at its Flight Operations Center in Seattle.

“We had 12 employees on that airplane and 26 of their family members and friends who were traveling with them that day,” Romano said. “There’s going to be a moment of silence here in Seattle. In addition to it being a very tragic, sad event, there was a lot of impact within the company as well.”

A change at the airline

The aircraft being flown that day was an MD-83, built by McDonnell Douglas, which became part of Boeing. Alaska Airlines said the pilot had reported problems with the stabilizer trim, a small wing-like component mounted on top of the tail. The stabilizer includes parts that are used to pitch the nose of the plane up and down. If a plane lost its horizontal stabilizer, it would be unable to keep the nose at a proper angle.

The day before the flight, the aircraft had been through a routine service in Seattle. It had also had a maintenance check on Jan. 11, just over two weeks prior. The plane had never been in an accident and had not had any problems reported prior to the accident.

In 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report on the probable cause of the crash. An investigation found that the failure of the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer was due to a jackscrew not being properly lubricated. The jackscrew is a large, threaded bolt that raises and lowers the leading edge of the stabilizer. The report cited widespread maintenance deficiencies at Alaska Airlines and lax oversight of those operations by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that, prior to the accident, Alaska Airlines began less-frequent lubrication of the jackscrews — a move that the FAA had approved. The airline also had obtained FAA approval for longer intervals between jackscrew inspections.

In the aftermath of the crash, the newspaper reported that Alaska Airlines increased the frequency of the lubrications and inspections.

In 2010, around the 10th anniversary of the crash, the Seattle Times reported “because of the crash, the jackscrew is now one of the most scrutinized components on a plane.” Alaska Airlines also made “sweeping changes to its maintenance program that has led to a better safety record.”

The airline now has a vice president of safety who reports to a safety committee. The company also participates in all FAA-sponsored safety reporting programs and has a quality assurance program in each operating division.

Prior to 2000, Alaska Airlines had had two fatal accidents. One occurred in 1971, when a Boeing 727-100 approaching Juneau crashed into a mountain slope, killing all 104 passengers and seven crew members. That accident was caused after the crew received misleading navigation information. Another occurred in 1976, when a 727 overran the runway while landing in Ketchikan, killing one passenger. According to Romano, the company hasn’t had a fatal crash since 2000.

Romano on Thursday stated that the changes made to maintenance protocols remain in place, though she declined to comment further on them. She did, however, note that a key element of Alaska Airlines’ safety practices is that all employees are empowered to stop any operation if they find an issue.

“I think (CEO Brad Tilden)’s statement pretty much says it all. Safety is our highest value. It’s our number one focus as a company,” she said. “Every employee in our company has the ability to stop the operation at any time if they think that something isn’t safe. That is huge. That’s everybody looking out for the safety of every aspect of our operation, every day.”

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