Aviation

Short of pilots, Alaska Airlines cancels dozens more flights into Monday

SEATTLE -- Alaska Airlines canceled 73 flights Sunday, an increase over its predictions from earlier, with more than 9,800 passengers affected as a pilot shortage continues to impact the air carrier’s business.

Cancellations were continuing on Monday, according to FlightAware, including a handful to and from airports in Alaska.

Sunday’s cancellations included 32 flights at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The airline had previously canceled 92 flights on Saturday, with another 18 flights significantly delayed by what officials said was a mix of weather, mechanical and “other standard issues.”

At Sea-Tac on Saturday, the airline canceled 27 departures and 32 arriving flights were canceled.

On Friday, the airline canceled 68 flights at Sea-Tac and more than 120 overall, affecting at least 15,300 travelers.

Every U.S. airline is facing the impacts of a national pilot shortage, brought on by reductions in staffing during the pandemic and a quicker than expected rebound in air travel this year.

However, Alaska has been hit worse than most.

With pilots now so in demand, they can choose where to work more easily. Alaska, currently in an increasingly bitter standoff with the union representing its pilots over a new contract, has lost dozens of pilots this year to other major U.S. carriers.

Despite the ongoing problem, Alaska spokesperson Alexa Rudin said via email that the major travel disruption this weekend should ease in the next few days.

“A significant portion of today’s cancels are clean up from the cancels yesterday that displaced aircraft and crews,” she wrote. “This situation will continue to improve as we resolve those impacts over the next couple days.”

Constance von Muehlen, Alaska’s chief operating officer, said in a statement Saturday the airline is “doing everything we can” to support affected passengers.

Alaska said it was notifying passengers and doing what it could to get them to their destinations as quickly as possible.

“We know the sudden cancellation of their travel plans is frustrating — we apologize to all of our guests who we let down,” read a statement posted on the airline’s website.

“Re-accommodation may include a later flight or an alternate route,” said Rudin. “We are also doing our best to notify guests whose travel is impacted as early as possible.”

“When we can’t accommodate them on Alaska, we have relationships with other airlines to help get them to their destination where possible,” she said. “We also work with guests on a case-by-case basis to care for their specific needs.”

However, those desperate for support by phone were out of luck.

Alaska is short-staffed throughout its operation, with shortages of not only pilots but also flight attendants and call-center representatives.

When 90-year-old Dorothy Case called Alaska’s customer service line Saturday, a recorded message told her to expect a hold time of “more than 10 hours.”

Anxious about her scheduled flight from Tucson, Arizona, to Seattle on Wednesday, which requires synchronizing complicated family arrangements, Case wants to find out if it’s still on but couldn’t reach the airline.

“We really need to know so we can plan,” said Case.

Kelly Pollock, with her family on a spring break trip to Disneyland, heard the same dispiriting 10-hour hold message when she called customer service at 5:30 a.m. Saturday after notification that their 8 a.m. flight home to Chicago through San Francisco was canceled.

After repeated calling, Pollock eventually got through to Alaska’s reservations line. The airline was able to put her husband, who needed to get back for work, on a United flight to Chicago on Saturday.

To get Pollock and her two teenagers home together, the best Alaska could offer was a 6 p.m. flight Sunday on American.

On Saturday, the three were stuck for the 34-hour delay in a hotel at LAX, which Pollock paid for.

She’s expecting a refund for the hotel cost from Alaska, but the reservations agent said she had to talk to customer service about that. Given the estimated hold time, that was impossible. And Pollock said both the airline’s online chat option and its text option were unavailable “due to volume.”

Pollock said she normally flies United but chose Alaska because of a bargain first-class ticket price. “I don’t think I’ll be flying Alaska again,” she said.

An internal Alaska Air memo Friday indicated the reasons for the chaos.

“Our operational performance today was below the level many of us expect,” Capt. John Ladner, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, wrote in a Friday email to pilots. “The primary driver for our performance right now is the shortage of pilots we have available to fly versus what was planned when we built our April schedule in January.”

Ladner cited the level of attrition as a major factor, and said Alaska was offering 150% of pay to pilots willing to pick up extra flights.

The airline’s management has been locked in contract negotiations with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) union for three years. Hundreds of Alaska pilots picketed Friday near Sea-Tac Airport and at the airline’s other hubs on the West Coast.

ALPA has warned the company repeatedly that Alaska’s situation is particularly acute.

In a message to members Friday night, the union’s executive council said pilots have been stretched to their limit for months and the current cancellations were predictable.

“Pilot staffing for April is low,” the message read. “All of you saw it coming.”

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