Alaska News

Days of cancellations and bad weather in Seattle and beyond ensnare Alaska travelers

Erin Rose’s 4-year-old son, Oliver, held her hand as they waited for their bags after arriving at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Thursday.

The two were returning from a marathon stint of travel that left them stuck in Chicago for four days on their return from visiting family in Helsinki, Finland, after a Seattle-based aircraft couldn’t make it to Chicago earlier this week.

They’re among a cadre of Alaska travelers who were left in a major lurch this week due to a combination of delays, cancellations and bad weather.

It’s been a nightmarish travel week for many air passengers across the country, including those traveling into and out of Alaska as well as regionally in the state.

Especially hard-hit are those traveling through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has seen the cancellation and delay of hundreds of flights this week prompted by bad weather and COVID-19′s impact on staffing levels.

About 20% of Alaska Airlines flights departing from Seattle, a major hub for the airline, were canceled on Wednesday and Thursday.

“Unfortunately, this has been the perfect storm of severe winter weather coupled with crew members and aircraft being displaced around the country and the continued impact of the omicron variant on staffing levels,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement Thursday.

Data from the flight-tracking website Flight Aware showed that flights from Anchorage to Seattle and vice versa were almost all delayed this week, while a few were outright canceled. The FlightAware site showed that by midday, nearly 300 flights into and out of Sea-Tac had been canceled Thursday alone, with dozens more canceled Friday.

[Sea-Tac Airport had canceled more flights than any other airport Wednesday and Thursday]

In Anchorage, 23 arriving and departing flights were canceled Wednesday and Thursday while 11 flights into and out of Fairbanks were canceled over the same time frame, according to Flight Aware.

Megan Holland was ensnared in a series of travel woes starting Sunday afternoon, when she was supposed to fly from her home in Anchorage through Seattle to San Jose, California.

After three canceled flights over several days and a few early hours catching up on sleep at a Motel 6 in Seattle, she opted instead to drive from Seattle to San Jose in a rental car.

Holland described Sea-Tac as crowded, with ridiculously long lines for customer service and some people pulling chairs from airport restaurants to sit on while they waited in line.

“It was like desperation was in the air,” Holland said. “Everybody’s trapped. Everybody’s tired.”

Alicia King from Juneau experienced similar frustrations this week on her way back from a trip to Denver. Upon arrival to Sea-Tac from Colorado, King said her flight to Juneau was delayed several times before it was eventually canceled. Another flight she was rebooked on was also canceled later that night.

After several more delays and a night in a Seattle hotel, a morning flight to Juneau took off with King on board Monday. She said staff from Alaska Airlines were “always friendly, kind, and as helpful as they could be.”

“The people from Juneau were kind and supportive of each other,” King wrote over email. “As we departed Seattle I wanted to shout out loud ‘yeah — we did it we are headed to Juneau!’ And then noticed many of my fellow passengers were sleeping (probably the ones who slept on the airport floor) so I kept my excitement to myself.”

Sea-Tac saw more snow Thursday morning but crews were working to de-ice runways, ramps and taxiways, said Kate Hudson, spokesperson for the Port of Seattle, which owns and operates the Sea-Tac airport. She said the airport has handed out hundreds of blankets to people spending the night there.

Temperatures are expected to be above freezing this weekend at Sea-Tac, likely meaning that airlines will not have to de-ice aircraft, which has been a “pain point,” Hudson said. She noted that there will still be higher traveler volumes given the holiday weekend, and nationwide, airlines are continuing to deal with staffing problems, which could add to more delays.

At Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, unclaimed luggage piled up and snaked around baggage claim carousels Wednesday and Thursday. According to Alaska Airlines, it could take several days to reunite bags with their owners.

On Thursday, Lydia Quinn cheered when she saw her bag on the luggage carousel after her flight from Seattle to Anchorage — and the Alaska Airlines employees who were helping her cheered back.

She said she’s happy to be back in Anchorage. “It’s horrific,” she said of Seattle.

Alaska Airlines is urging people traveling before Sunday to think about changing their flights.

“With more snow expected and limited seats available during an already busy holiday week, we’re not able to re-accommodate most guests for at least three days,” Alaska Airlines officials said Wednesday.

Megan Peters, a spokesperson for the Anchorage airport, emphasized that people should arrive at least two hours before their flights to make time for parking and getting through security. She also said the airport recommends that travelers who are concerned about upcoming flights reach out directly to their air carriers.

Mike Garvey was one of the Alaskans whose journey back from family holidays in the Lower 48 hit a snag in Seattle on his way home to Anchorage. He heard about Sea-Tac’s issues on his flight from Atlanta to Seattle, and he spent much of the flight reading about mass cancellations and flight rebooking sagas.

“That, in retrospect, was a mistake. It would have been better to sit in blissful ignorance,” Garvey said.

At Sea-Tac, he and his wife narrowly missed their connecting flight back to Alaska after their plane had to wait on the tarmac for two hours. He hopped in a lengthy customer service line, and his wife tried rebooking their flight on her phone. All around them were people in various states of frustration, from placid acceptance to “volcanic rage.”

Garvey, whose original point of departure was Philadelphia, felt lucky to have made it back to Anchorage in the wee hours of Wednesday morning — not tremendously later than their original itinerary.

“I think there’s a lot about the situation that brings to the forefront how much we take for granted with travel,” Garvey added.

With so much of the West Coast airline system under duress from backlogged flights and temperamental weather, getting out of Alaska has been just as spotty as getting back in.

Sarah Brotherton was trying to get from her home in Utqiagvik to Portland, Oregon, when her scheduled flight was abruptly canceled Monday. She and her partner were told flights the next day were fully booked, and they nearly resigned themselves to being potentially unable to leave until the end of the week. However, they managed to squeeze onboard Tuesday afternoon by showing up in person.

“We only got on that plane because we went to the airport and made nuisances of ourselves to the poor gate agents,” Brotherton said.

By the time they arrived luggage-less in Portland at 2 a.m., public transit was shut down and the roads were a mess. They thought they might have to sleep on the airport floor, but after a wait, they finally found a Lyft ride. It cost $100.

“The thing that I would want people to know,” Brotherton said, “is that we rely on airlines for our day-to-day life. Without air service, we are effectively stranded 300 miles above the Arctic Circle.”

It has been frustrating, she said, that all efforts to call, text or otherwise get ahold of customer service have been slow to nonexistent. Even after arriving at their destination, the couple spent all of Wednesday calling the airline and leaving voicemails trying to find their luggage. What ultimately worked, again, was going in person.

“We just showed up to the airport and our big stack of totes was sitting on the floor outside the baggage office,” Brotherton said, adding about airport staff, “I’m sure they’re very overwhelmed.”