Updated January 8, 2020
After a tragic flightseeing accident in Ketchikan, Alaska, killed six passengers from Princess Cruises' Royal Princess in May 2019 and injured 10 others, cruise travelers might be wondering how safe it is to take an air-based shore excursion. We've assembled a Q and A to help make sense of the incident – and to help you make your own decisions on whether to take a flightseeing shore excursion.
What is "flightseeing?"
Flightseeing is the term given to shore excursions that take you up in a small plane or helicopter to get a better view or access to remote areas. They range from excursions that buzz the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to helicopter trips over scenic Kauai in Hawaii to visiting the hard-to-reach Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, Alaska.
How often do people go on small planes in Alaska?
Small aircraft and float planes are a common sight in the 49th State. The state is simply too vast to drive; the majority of Alaska's towns and cities, including the capital, Juneau, are inaccessible by road. While residents use the planes to get to larger cities and to services such as grocery stores and hospitals, flightseeing for tourism is also a huge industry. Flightseeing excursions are available in almost every Alaska port, as well as Denali National Park, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
How often do flightseeing accidents happen in Alaska?
Considering the volume of flights that go up every day, the number of fatal flightseeing crashes is comparitively low. However, they do happen. In June 2015, eight cruise passengers from Holland America's Westerdam, as well as the plane's pilot, died when their floatplane crashed. In 2013, one cruise passenger from Lindblad Expedition's National Geographic Sea Bird died and two others were injured after a small plane crashed into a mountain outside Petersburg. In 2007, two flightseeing excursions to Misty Fjords ended in fatalities.
Why do plane crashes happen in Alaska?
Mountainous terrain and treacherous weather that can change in an instant are the most common reasons planes crash in Alaska. Ketchikan, the closest city to Misty Fjords, averages 153 inches of annual rainfall. Vast stretches of the Inside Passage, where most cruise ships go, travel near Tongass National Forest, which is a 17-million-acre temperate rain forest -- emphasis on rain. Adverse weather conditions can also happen in Denali, where the mountain is often shrouded in clouds, and Juneau, which has dangerous wind shears.
Are there precautions I can take?
In the article 9 Tips for Staying Safe on a Shore Excursion, we note that there is usually an extra level of vetting if you go on a flightseeing tour operator vetted by the cruise line, as opposed to a tour selling tickets at the pier. That being said, accidents have happened on cruise line excursions. You can also find out the name of the operator and check its safety record ahead of time on the database maintained by the National Transportation Safety Board
You should also ask the company about the route the plane takes. If the small plane flies through tricky mountain passes, it's likely a riskier trip than one that flies over plains.
Finally, trust your gut about the weather and realize the risks that Alaska weather poses. If you're not comfortable with the conditions outside, follow your instinct and cancel the trip. Your peace of mind is worth whatever you'll lose on a deposit.