You can disagree with me, but weather issues over the holiday travel season are as common as the holly and the ivy.
If you’re headed to or passing through the Lower 48, odds are you will be affected by a messy weather event. That means you could be faced with delayed or canceled flights or lost bags. You could end up sleeping at the airport.
Something else to remember: It could be sunny and clear at your airport, but the planes and the crew have to come from somewhere. And chances are they are starting their trip at a hub such as Seattle or Chicago, where the weather is lousy.
For their part, airlines are proactively canceling flights in anticipation of bad weather. Further, they’re reaching out to passengers, inviting them to reschedule their trips without penalty.
While hub airports like Seattle and Portland buckle under the strain of bad weather and record passenger numbers, carriers in the remote parts of Alaska are dealing with their own weather and operational issues.
Grant Aviation operates 54 planes in dozens of Alaska communities. “We’re operating per normal, subject to weather,” Grant CEO Rob Kelley said.
“Weather” in this issue means wind, which kept planes on the ground last Friday morning in Bethel and other communities in western Alaska. Grant has hubs in King Salmon, Dutch Harbor and Dillingham.
Up in Utqiaġvik, Matt Atkinson of Wright Air Service is mostly worried about pilots timing out before the end of the year. FAA regulations limit pilots to 1,000 flight hours per year. “We’ve got good weather for flying,” said Atkinson. “But it’s a challenge to get crews up here.”
Andy Kline of Alaska Seaplanes in Juneau is thankful for a good stretch of weather. But the staff is preparing for a big snowstorm at Christmas. “This weekend is really affected by weather,” he said. The company’s 14 planes will not be flying on Christmas Day.
Airports in Seattle and Portland are hobbled by freezing rain. “Stay at home,” said Dave Salesky, a former Alaskan who now is the chief meteorologist at KATU-TV in Portland. Salesky warned of wind gusts exceeding 80 miles per hour at the Portland airport.
“It’s so bad that I’ve got a hummingbird in my garage,” he said.
Although both the Seattle and Portland airports technically will be open, there’s no guarantee your flight will operate on time.
John DiScala writes the popular Johnny Jet blog and was supposed to travel this weekend. But as the snow and high winds began buffeting the Midwest and East Coast, he decided to stick around his home in Los Angeles, where it’s 80 degrees and sunny. He has some advice for those who must fly, or are willing to take the risk:
“Get to the airport early,” he cautions. “If you miss your flight it could be days before you can catch another one.”
Discala also recommends grabbing some snacks, plus any medications you need, and putting them in your carry-on bag.
“Don’t check a bag,” cautions DiScala. “Or if you do, be sure and put an AirTag in there, so you can find it.”
Weekends like this are a perfect demonstration of why you should get Global Entry for security. The program is designed for international travelers, but a side benefit is you always get TSA Precheck.
Weather is not the only factor for travelers to consider. Earlier this week, there was a security breach at Sea-Tac airport. It didn’t last long, but the waiting times were more than an hour for security. The exception was the Precheck lines, which showed wait times of less than five minutes.
This weekend also offers a good example of why it pays to have travel insurance. That’s particularly important for canceled flights and lost luggage.
I just received a note from a traveler who lost five bags. She and her travel companions were in Utah for a five-day ski trip. Keep in mind that your credit card may have some kind of travel insurance baked into its benefits. You need to read the fine print to be sure.
On my phone, I have the mobile apps for Alaska Air, Delta, United and American. The mobile apps are valuable for alerts on delayed flights, canceled flights or gate changes.
DiScala encourages travelers to have a backup plan in case the flights are canceled. For many travelers, that means spending the holiday at home instead of with friends and relatives.
The other ever-present X factor in holiday travel is there are thousands of folks catching flights who do not travel often. They are slow at security. They ask lots of questions of the gate agent while you’re waiting patiently. They have cranky kids. That’s one big reason to allow extra time (at least two hours) before your flight. And it’s the reason you should be wary of tight connections (less than an hour) between flights.
Wherever you’re spending the holidays — make it great. And let’s get ready for a Happy New Year!