Travel

Tips for navigating cancellations and travel changes if your Alaska Airlines experience proves ‘choppy’

Are you planning on flying Alaska Airlines soon?

You may be in for a “choppy ride,” according to Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci.

The issue is not turbulence at 30,000 feet. Rather, it has to do with your odds of getting into the air at all. Alaska has been canceling flights and axing routes throughout the spring due to a shortage of pilots.

In a video presentation Thursday to the airline’s frequent flyers, Minicucci owned up to the cancellations. “We’ve been canceling about 50 out of 1,200 flights daily,” he said. Minicucci said that the cancellations are likely to continue, although he’s hopeful things will get better as the summer progresses.

Flights get canceled every day. But the corresponding bottleneck with Alaska Airlines’ customer service centers compounds the problems for travelers. Travelers have reported waiting on hold for 10 hours or more.

Recently, my flight on Alaska Airlines was canceled just as we were getting ready to board. Also, I’ve spoken with many travelers, some industry representatives and travel agents to distill some key steps for travelers when they’re faced with a canceled flight.

If you have plans to fly with Alaska Airlines this summer, take a moment right now and review your arrangements. Go online and double-check your flights, your seat assignments and any other arrangements you’ve made with the airline. Make sure none of your flights have been changed or canceled.

In his recent video, Minicucci said Alaska Airlines has been canceling about 4% of its flights. Previously, the airline had implemented a 2% reduction in its schedule. So that means that more flights are getting canceled in an effort to match up available pilots and crew with planes to fly.

Don’t wait for Alaska Airlines to contact you if your flights have been changed. However, if you do receive an email notice that your flight is canceled, call the airline using the unpublished number in the email. That’s different from the regular reservations number. According to Tim Thompson, a spokesman for Alaska Airlines, that “secret number” in the notification email will help you skip to the front of the line to speak with a customer service agent.

[Travelers can expect Alaska Airlines to keep canceling flights at high level for weeks]

If your flights are canceled and you need to call the airline, seek out the person in your party with the highest elite-level status. Typically that’s MVP Gold or above. When an elite-level traveler calls, their calls are answered first.

One traveler was flying with her family to Palm Springs when her flight got canceled at the gate. She called Alaska Airlines and was put on hold, then opted to get a call back from reservations. After getting a ride back home, she used her husband’s phone to call. He’s a top-level elite flyer. The reservations staff answered right away and she was able to rebook everyone’s flight. Sitting in the lounge the next day before their new flight, she finally got a call back from Alaska Airlines. It had been more than 24 hours.

In addition to calling on your phone, you can send a text to the airline, at 82008. Keep your messages below 160 characters. I’ve never used the text function, but I have had good luck in the past sending a direct note via Twitter. Alaska has a dedicated social media team that monitors Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When my flight was canceled two weeks ago, I walked over to the agent manning the counter. A woman named Grace helped rebook me for the next flight. I renamed her “Grace Under Fire” since 50 people quickly lined up behind me to get rebooked.

Sometimes it’s easier to go to the airport and talk to a customer service agent than to reach Alaska’s customer service office by phone.

I spoke with an Anchorage-based travel agent about Alaska’s woes. When asked for advice to travelers, the agent scoffed and said, “I don’t know. Maybe book Delta.”

We laughed. The agent continued, “This is a problem when you’re in a one-airline town. There aren’t a lot of other options.”

For most travelers in the state, Alaska Airlines is the preferred airline. For many, it’s the only option. At least here in Anchorage, there are some competitive options heading south to the Lower 48.

In his video address, Alaska’s CEO Minicucci acknowledges that rebooking during a peak travel time can be difficult. One elite-level traveler was headed to St. Louis for a presentation when his flight from Seattle was canceled. At the last minute, he could have purchased a replacement ticket for $2,500. That was too much, so he canceled the presentation and Alaska refunded his ticket.

If you really need to get to your destination, call and buy another ticket. You have 24 hours to hold the ticket, during which time you can refund it without penalty. Save your receipts and sort it out with Alaska’s customer service later. It’s always a good idea to get the name of the customer service agent who’s helping you, as well as the time and date.

Consider travel insurance. I have a travel insurance policy with Allianz, mostly for lost luggage and accidents. Some cancellations may be covered under the “travel delay” portion of the policy, including lodging, meals and transportation. My credit card, Chase Sapphire Reserve, also has a robust travel insurance package. It includes trip delay insurance and expenses for lost or delayed baggage. There also is a category for replacement tickets, but there are caps on the benefits. There’s really no way of knowing exactly what’s covered without reading the fine print.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic, travel insurance has become more popular.

If Alaska Airlines is rebooking you and the other Alaska flights don’t work, ask the agent to book you on another airline. Airlines do this every day, but sometimes you have to ask. Also, if your new flight requires a long layover, be sure to ask for assistance with lodging and meals.

Many travelers are concerned that Alaska Airlines pilots are on strike, because of informational picketing that took place last month. The pilots are not on strike. This month, the pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, is taking a strike-authorization vote. While the pilots’ negotiations are a distinct and separate issue from the current pilot shortage, there’s still a connection. That’s because some pilots are leaving Alaska Airlines to work for other airlines. The union made its own video to highlight this issue.

All airlines are looking to bring on new pilots, so hiring is very competitive. Alaska Airlines is working hard to hire and train new pilots, reservations agents and flight attendants to accommodate a surge in travel this summer. Hopefully, the airline will be successful in reducing the number of canceled flights and impacted passengers. In the meantime, passengers must be prepared for a “choppy ride.”

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

Sponsored