Editor’s note: On Saturday, flight disruptions from the volcanic ash cloud over Alaska had eased with airline operations largely returning to normal. Read the latest update here.
More than 100 flights were canceled to, from and within Alaska this week as a cloud of volcanic ash drifted from Russia, leaving many passengers frustrated Friday as additional cancellations were possible over the weekend.
The Shiveluch Volcano began erupting Tuesday, sending ash clouds more than 6 miles into the air.
A long, thin cloud of ash began drifting toward the Aleutian Islands on Wednesday and continued east toward the Gulf of Alaska, where it caused major disturbances for air traffic starting Thursday. Volcanic ash is a danger to planes because it is abrasive and can cause engines to fail. Alaska Airlines canceled 51 flights that day, the company said in a statement.
By Friday afternoon, the largest concentration of the cloud sat over the southern Gulf of Alaska, said Nate Eckstein of the Anchorage Volcanic Ash Advisory Center. Detached parts of the cloud were situated northeast of Fairbanks over the Canadian border and over Montreal, he said.
On Friday, Alaska Airlines had canceled 82 flights by midafternoon. In a statement, the company said operations Friday afternoon were “slowly returning to normal at all airports.”
Flights from other airlines arriving at or departing from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport also appeared to be canceled on Thursday and Friday, affecting routes in the state and to the Lower 48. In a statement, Delta Airlines said the company expected the ash to cause minimal impacts to service because of their “somewhat smaller presence in the state.”
The largest concentration of ash was anticipated to move toward Southeast Alaska, potentially near Sitka, by Saturday morning, Eckstein said. The cloud could cause continued flight delays for passengers traveling to and from the Lower 48.
The ash cloud has stayed together longer than initially anticipated, and Eckstein said it’s challenging to determine exactly when it will dissipate. Much of the cloud was changing over from ash to gas on Thursday and officials are monitoring future changes, he said.
“This is quite a long time for an ash cloud to be suspended for,” Eckstein said. “Three to four days is usually a rule of thumb and by tomorrow we’ll be on day five, so we should be reaching the end of this event and maybe we’re a little surprised that it hasn’t already ended.”
‘A big bummer’
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was packed with passengers on Friday as flights were repeatedly delayed or canceled, throwing a wrench into many travelers’ plans. Some Alaskans were stuck in other states, trying to get back home.
A group of students from Palmer’s Academy Charter School who traveled to Juneau for a field trip to learn about the legislative process and meet with lawmakers were unable to fly home Thursday after their flight was canceled.
The 30 sixth graders were finishing up a meeting with Wasilla state Rep. Jesse Sumner when their teachers and parents received notice that the flight was canceled, said Julie Estey, one of 10 parents chaperoning the trip. They began coordinating with several parents back home to rebook flights for all of the students, but that next flight was canceled too, Estey said. The group was scheduled to leave Saturday.
“There’s parents here that are needing to get home to other kids or family members, there’s kids here without their families — some are having a ball with that and some are more concerned,” she said. “Even things like doing laundry, the kids only packed so many pairs of clothes and their parents only sent so much money along.”
The group is trying to make the most out of the longer trip. They went hiking at the Mendenhall Glacier, huddled around a bonfire on the beach, went ice skating and saw a movie, Estey said.
“We’re doing our best to keep it fun, but we’re all ready to get home,” she said.
The travel disruptions were also affecting several state lawmakers in Juneau, some of whom had planned town hall meetings with constituents back home in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula this weekend.
In Anchorage, multiple musicians who’d planned to travel to Juneau to perform at the annual Alaska Folk Festival were unable to make it by Friday.
Anchorage musician Kat Moore said she arrived at the airport Thursday morning only to have her flight delayed. She and several other musicians pulled out their instruments and started a jam session as they waited. Fiddle, banjo and cello sounds rang out over the airport announcements.
Their plane took off Thursday afternoon, but roughly 40 minutes later it was turned around because of the volcanic ash, Moore said. She was rebooked for a Saturday flight and said she still hopes to make it to the festival.
A group of Folk Festival-bound musicians all got together in Anchorage on Thursday night to play together and “keep the spirit alive in Anchorage,” Moore said.
“I feel like because so many of us are in the same boat, it relieved a little bit of the fear of missing out,” she said.
Jason Overby, who performs in the Sutton-based band The Inlaws and the Outlaws, said he was also on the plane that diverted back to Anchorage. He was rebooked on a 7 a.m. flight Friday that was delayed several times before finally being canceled.
Overby said he wasn’t able to get a seat on a Saturday flight, so he won’t be at the show this year.
“It’s a big bummer,” he said. “It’s the highlight of my year.”