Assembly scrutinizes Alaska Excursions tour

 

March 1, 2018



Before approving an ATV tour permit at Glacier Point, the Haines Borough Assembly decided this week to investigate unsafe practices by Skagway tour company Alaska Excursions after former employees criticized the company.

Alaska Excursions, owned by Skagway resident Robert Murphy, operates a canoe tour at Glacier point and recently applied for a new ATV tour permit in the area.

In a letter to the assembly, former Alaska Excursions Glacier Point tour manager and canoe guide Kevin Johnson said the company’s management refused to provide an automated external defibrillator for the tour after he requested one for safety reasons. Johnson said management told him the company was less likely to incur a lawsuit if an AED wasn’t present as opposed to if they had one and it failed to work.

“Alaska Excursions is a company that I have seen very consistently put profit over the safety of its guests, and for that reason alone I would like to state that it is not in the best interest of the Haines Borough to allow Alaska Excursions to operate another tour (or any tour) at Glacier Point,” Johnson said.


Former employee Ben Moore told the assembly that as a first mate on boats that ran between Skagway and Glacier Point he saw management “coerce captains into trying to make the run even when wind readings at Eldred Rock exceeded the stated company policy for cancellations, which is small craft advisory.”

Ray Staska captained vessels for the company for three years, he said. He also ran the same tour under Chilkat Guides for two years before Alaska Excursions bought the operation.

“Maintenance of (the) RIB tour boats diminished to substandard levels during my three seasons with Alaska (Excursions),” Staska wrote to the assembly. “On one particular excursion, I lost two engines while the third barely enabled navigation in 10 foot seas off of Mud Bay Point. This close encounter with a rocky shoreline with clients was due in part to maintenance coupled with company pressure to commit to a trip in the face of poor weather forecasts.”

In his initial statement to the assembly, Murphy said it was inappropriate to address complaints from individual employees. Assembly member Tom Morphet pressed him for details on the specific allegations.

“As convenient as it would be to not talk about some of these charges against your safety operation, I think we very much have to talk about them… I would like to hear you address some of these specific concerns that have been raised. I can’t imagine these situations have been fabricated and to me, they’re serious,” Morphet said.


Murphy admitted the company delayed getting an AED to Glacier Point. “One came back into town and we were late on getting batteries, but we did purchase another one this year and the management never got it installed,” Murphy said.

Murphy disputed the allegation that management pressures captains to navigate in bad weather and said the company has a policy to let the captains determine whether or not to turn around once they reach the Katzehin River. He also said all his guides hold the required first aid certifications. The U.S. Coast Guard inspects their equipment every year, Murphy said.

More than 10 Alaska Excursions employees wrote in support of the tour company, most of whom never worked at Glacier Point.

Alaska Excursions employee Blake Bottle disputed the allegations against the tour company and said the former employees are “conducting a witch hunt” because they were not invited back to work for the company.

“As a current employee, I can say that the management, training, and safety resources are beyond exceptional…please do not let the vocal minority succeed in their attempt at slandering Alaska (Excursions),” Blake wrote.

Murphy also said the complaints were from employees who had an axe to grind.

“What you’re hearing from almost exclusively are staff that were not invited back to the company for various reasons,” Murphy said. “There is certainly some axe grinding going on and we have to sit here and take it.”

Alaska Excursions has the highest rating available from the Better Business Bureau, which rates companies based on 13 factors including complaints, transparency, government records and licensing. Alaska Excursions has the highest rating possible on both Yelp and Trip Advisor. The company received nine negative employee reviews related to unsafe practices and poor management, and two positive reviews on glassdoor.com—a website that allows employees to leave anonymous company reviews.


The CVN submitted a public records request for U.S. Coast Guard inspections records of the company’s vessels, but did not receive records by press time.

Borough manager Debra Schnabel recommended the assembly approve the permit on the conditions that the tour company allow borough emergency medical staff inspect their safety plan and equipment.

Assembly member Brenda Josephson advised the assembly to not give more weight to the former employees who complained about the company than those who disputed the allegations.

“The (borough) staff will be reviewing a safety plan and doing an inspection,” Josephson said. “We’ve got to start using common sense.”

Assembly member Heather Lende said she was uncomfortable approving the permit without another meeting to discuss the issue.

“We’ve got a lot of he said she said here,” Lende said. “As an assembly person I feel the obligation to our local people and especially our local young people who are here tonight speaking about this. I’m by nature inclined to agree with them.”

The assembly voted 4-1, with Josephson opposed, to schedule a committee of the whole meeting to further address the permit application.

The meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 5 at 6:30 p.m.

Alaska Excursions paid a $2,500 fine to the borough for operating their canoe tour in 2017 at Glacier Point without a tour permit. The company also violated borough code when it advertised the ATV tour without applying for a permit. The company removed the tour from its website after the borough notified them of the violation.

 
 

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