Business/Economy

Big snow in Seattle and ice storm in Portland hobbled Alaska Airlines operations at Sea-Tac

SEATTLE -- The snowstorm that hit the Pacific Northwest last week dropped more than a foot of snow at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and left airlines struggling to maintain their schedules. Alaska Airlines passengers were particularly badly hit. Delta handled the weather a lot better.

Seattle-based Alaska canceled more than 400 mainline flights at Sea-Tac between Feb. 12 and 15, when the snow finally began to clear.

On Feb. 13, the worst day, Alaska canceled 81% of its scheduled flights in and out of Sea-Tac, according to aviation data analysis firm Cirium. The following day, Alaska canceled 37% of its scheduled flights.

Those figures include all Alaska Air Group flights, counting those operated by its Horizon Air subsidiary and by contract carrier SkyWest, all of them flying in Alaska colors.

An ice storm in Portland on Feb. 12 worsened Alaska’s problems at Sea-Tac because Horizon had to reposition 14 regional jets from Portland to Sea-Tac, limiting the space available to de-ice airplanes.

“Not our finest hour,” conceded spokesperson Bobbie Egan. “We had a challenging weekend.”

“We can’t maintain a full operation during heavy snow/ice, largely due to the added time it takes to de-ice each plane,” she said. “We control what we can — our schedule. ... We proactively precanceled roughly 1/3 of our flights 24 hours before Saturday.”

“Thinning our schedule 24 hours in advance and at least three to four hours before a flight departs keeps our guests safe at home, not stuck at the airport, and allows us to safely operate what flights we can,” Egan added.

In contrast, Cirium data shows Delta canceled 30% of its total flights in and out of Sea-Tac on Saturday, including both mainline and regional jets in Delta colors. On Sunday, it canceled 20% of its schedule.

Helda Durham, Delta’s director of operations at Sea-Tac, sent a memo to her team after the weather eased praising their success in keeping flights running.

Durham highlighted that her staff managed to get hundreds of non-Delta passengers to their destinations after their flights on two rival airlines were canceled. (A copy of the memo obtained by The Seattle Times redacted the names of the two airlines.)

“Snowmageddon 2019” lessons?

The heavy impact of the snow at the airport brought to mind the even greater chaos from the extreme “Snowmaggedon” storm of February 2019.

In that year’s first-quarter earnings report, Alaska said the storm caused 1,100 flight cancellations over a 10-day period and cost the airline $15 million.

Alaska’s Egan said the airline “learned a lot after the Feb. 2019 snowstorm” and put into place the plan to precancel many flights before disruptive weather, which “allowed us to be as successful as we could have, given the circumstances.”

She said the problem was not a shortage of snow plows or airplane de-icing trucks. Alaska contracts with Manchester, New Hampshire-based IDS, which has 20 de-icing trucks at the airport, Egan said.

She pointed out that Sea-Tac is the nation’s No. 83 airport in terms of acreage, just over half the size of Delta’s main hub in Atlanta, and so “is space constrained with few places to park planes and de-ice.”

“Bringing in more de-icing trucks isn’t a solution if you have nowhere to park them or operate multiple de-icing pads,” said Egan.

How did Delta fare better? Delta spokesman Anthony Black offered some reasons.

Based on the experience at Sea-Tac from that Snowmaggedon event two years ago, he said, Delta added more de-icing trucks, more de-ice fluids and additional support staff. And in Seattle, Delta runs the entire operation itself, not using contractors.

“We’re proud of the performance of Delta people during this snowstorm,” Black wrote in an email. While “the planning, preparations, access to right equipment are all critical, even more important is the extra lengths our people go to.”

Last weekend, he said, about two dozen employees from other Delta bases — including Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and New York — volunteered to travel to Seattle to provide additional support where needed.

The airline put up some employees in hotel rooms and even had employees walk miles to the airport to work when their transportation failed, he said.

In the company memo to Delta’s Seattle team, Durham called them “absolute Rock Stars.”

Brooke Vatheuer, Alaska’s vice president of strategic performance, said the big performance discrepancy is in part due to a difference in strategy, whereby Alaska chose to keep operating as many regional, short-haul flights as possible while Delta did not.

“They canceled the vast majority of their regional flights and protected their mainline flights,” said Vatheuer. “We used a different strategy that figured out how to affect the least number of passengers.”

That different approach is apparent in figures from real-time flight tracking firm FlightAware, which shows that Delta canceled only four mainline flights in and out of Sea-Tac on Saturday, and just three on Sunday.

And Vatheuer added that another factor in the discrepancy is that because Sea-Tac is Alaska’s main hub, many aircraft were parked there overnight on Friday and Saturday — planes that had a buildup of snow around them that had to be cleared in the morning with plows.

In contrast, she said, far more of Delta’s flights were coming in from elsewhere, then turning around and departing while still warm.

Vatheuer said that comparing only aircraft that were landing at Sea-Tac and turning around for an immediate departure, Alaska’s performance “was very similar to Delta’s.”

Sea-Tac is Alaska’s main hub, and so it has to manage more than three times the number of flights that Delta schedules, as well as large crew bases and maintenance facilities, she said.

“Carriers who face weather storms in their major hubs are all hit harder,” said Alaska’s Egan, adding: “There were definite lessons learned here and we’ll apply them and get better.”

Sponsored