Aviation

Travel chaos from pilot shortage just part of Alaska Airlines’ headaches

En route to the airport from their Bainbridge Island, Washington, home early on April 1 for a long-planned trip to a wedding in Tampa, Florida, the Abarbanel family received a notification from Alaska Airlines: Their flight was canceled.

That weekend and in the days after, a pilot shortage at Alaska caused hundreds of such last-minute flight cancellations that fueled anger among tens of thousands of passengers delayed or stranded.

The chaos was the last straw for the Abarbanels, who said they had three previous Alaska flights this year either canceled or changed at short notice.

Having abandoned all hope of reaching Alaska customer service — with a hold time of 10 hours — they finally got to Tampa on Monday via alternate flights they booked for themselves on Delta and JetBlue. They paid substantial additional hotel and rental car expenses and lost two nights already paid for in a beachfront condo.

“Our journey planned well ahead turned into the trip from hell,” Mary Beth Abarbanel, a retiree who traveled with her husband and adult son, wrote in an email “Longtime Alaska customer, with a bank of money and miles. Alaska is now losing our business.”

The airline may have a long climb to get above the clouds now shrouding its reputation for warm and reliable service.

Constance von Muehlen, Alaska’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, attributed the schedule meltdown to a series of one-off setbacks over several months.

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The surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus and the snowstorm in December delayed the flow of pilots from the airline’s training pipeline, she said, and created “a unique confluence of events.”

“We should have recognized this sooner and made the necessary schedule adjustments,” she conceded in an email to employees on Tuesday.

Yet the pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, had long warned management a staffing crisis was coming.

“We started late last fall, then going into the events in December with the snowstorm, saying, ‘You are not properly staffed,’ " Will McQuillen, ALPA’s Alaska council chairperson, said in an interview. “This airline should have the elasticity to be able to respond to these events. It’s running too lean.”

Executives at Alaska dismiss this as labor posturing during the protracted and increasingly bitter pilot contract negotiations.

Yet a video of an internal Alaska pilot meeting shows Alaska executives, two weeks before the meltdown on April 1, were keenly aware of the imminence of an acute pilot shortage and the threat of chaos.

At that mid-March meeting, one employee asked: “Reserve coverage for next month appears to be insufficient to staff the airline. What’s the plan?”

John Ladner, vice president of flight operations, responded that pilots resigning to join other airlines had reduced the number of reserve pilots on call to fill gaps in scheduling.

“We are seeing attrition. You’re definitely seeing the impact with the low number of reserves that we have periodically,” Ladner told his pilots. “April is looking like it’s going to be a difficult month.”

Still, no urgent action was taken to stanch the deluge of cancellations that hit April 1.

In the aftermath of that disaster, Alaska said it will now proactively reduce its flying schedule by 2% through June “to match our current pilot capacity” of about 3,100 pilots. That’s about 24 flights per day, freeing up 24 flight crews for redeployment.

With that, the airline hopes to avoid more day-of-flight cancellations.

“We will let you know in advance if your itinerary is impacted by these schedule adjustments,” the airline promised travelers in a statement on its website Thursday.

As for the distress caused to stranded passengers last weekend, von Muehlen said, “we’re deeply sorry for the challenges that they might have had.”

Pilot disaffection

Alaska is short not only of pilots but also of flight attendants and customer service reps.

In a March 28 video staff meeting, an employee cited frustration among overworked reservation agents who because of the long wait times were “taking verbal abuse not bad enough to hang up on a guest but enough to put agents in tears and even to the point of quitting at a high rate.”

Ironically, the staff shortages hit the carrier just over a week after management touted expansive growth plans at its annual Investor Day in New York.

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Management’s growth story, claiming Alaska can emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever and capture bigger markets, is aimed at raising the stock price.

In New York, the leadership projected Alaska will grow its seat capacity between 4% and 8% annually through 2025 and by the end of next year will be flying 24 more mainline jets than it had at the start of this year. Since Alaska must hire 12 pilots for every extra plane it adds to the fleet, that’s close to 300 additional pilots needed for that expansion alone, not accounting for retirements and attrition.

In an interview in early March, Nat Pieper, Alaska’s senior vice president responsible for the jet fleet and finances, said the current industrywide pilot shortage is a concern given the airline’s growth aspirations.

“We’ve got the balance sheet to do it. We’ve got airplanes coming,” said Pieper. “But you’ve obviously got to have crew to be able to do that.”

All U.S. airlines are facing challenging labor shortages as air travel recovers. All cut staff during the steep pandemic downturn and some employees did not return.

Some pilots close to the retirement age of 65 chose to quit early during the pandemic. At Alaska, 137 of its most experienced veterans elected early retirement out of about 3,100 total pilots.

Making the situation worse at Alaska, the shortage means pilots have lots of options and Alaska has seen significant attrition this year as pilots left to join other carriers.

In the first three months of the year, 27 line pilots left for other airlines. In addition, 22 hired as pilots but who had not completed their training jumped ship to another carrier.

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There’s also a significant no-show factor for those pilot training classes, as candidates accept an offer when Alaska calls, then switch when a different airline makes an offer.

“A couple of weeks prior to class, pilots are backing out of offers,” Scott Day, system chief pilot at Alaska, told the pilots in that mid-March pilot meeting with Ladner. Day added that Alaska is now overfilling the classes by about 10% to compensate for this attrition.

ALPA’s McQuillen said Friday five more pilots resigned in the past week to go elsewhere, bringing the total to 54 pilots who have moved to greener pastures so far this year.

Last year, 43 Alaska pilots resigned in the entire 12 months and in pre-pandemic years, as pilots switched airlines for family reasons or geographic location, a figure of around 20 resignations was more typical, McQuillen said.

The union says the level of attrition is evidence that Alaska has fallen behind the major airlines not only in pilot pay but in the crew scheduling rules that determine if a pilot’s work schedule is flexible or not.

And they complain that management won’t commit to limits on the percentage of flights flown by smaller regional jets flown by lower-paid pilots — which they see as a long-term threat to career security.

In the current deadlocked contract talks, both sides expect the pilot pay to be raised to the current market level at other airlines. It’s the “quality of life” crew scheduling and career security issues that are blocking a deal.

Pilots “will gravitate towards the carrier that offers the greatest quality of life and career security,” said McQuillen.

Contract talks at an impasse

Hundreds of pilots turned out to picket for a new contract at Alaska’s Seattle base near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on April 1 and more than 1,000 took part across its network hubs.

While many passengers assumed the flight cancellations were a result of this show of disaffection, that’s not the case. Those were off-duty pilots. There’s no strike.

The company clarified on its website that “This informational picket was not the cause of our cancellations.”

Instead, von Muehlen and Jeff Severns, managing director of flight operations training, cited the big shortfall in the new-hire pilots who graduated from Alaska’s training program for April 1 compared to the expected number.

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“We started new hires in October, really filled the schoolhouse November, December, and then every month thereafter,” Severns said. “When Omicron hit in December ... we saw delays with students in the schoolhouse down sick with omicron, with instructors not being available.”

He added that the operational portion of the training for new-hire pilots, when they fly along with a very experienced pilot, was impacted by the December weather delays and cancellations.

The result was Alaska had 63 fewer pilots ready to fly on April 1 than was planned for when the schedule was set in January.

The union believes the problems run deeper. McQuillen said the no-show rates for training and the loss of pilots to other airlines “has nothing to do with omicron or weather.”

When the pilot contract bargaining continued this week before a federal mediator, the talks went nowhere and broke off a day early on Thursday. The impasse seems worse than ever.

Ladner in a message to the pilots that night complained of “ALPA’s unwillingness to find common ground.”

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“To be candid, we are unsure of our next steps and are waiting to hear from our mediator,” Ladner wrote.

The union sent out an even stronger message. Though federal labor law makes it extremely difficult for airline pilots to strike — the government can impose a cooling off period and even force a settlement — McQuillen hinted that might lie ahead.

“It’s our strong recommendation that Alaska pilots prepare financially for a much bigger fight to achieve our collective goals,” he wrote to his members.

McQuillen on Saturday clarified that “a strike might lie ahead if legally sanctioned.”

He said via email that if the federal mediator decides “that the two parties are at an impasse, he can release us to a 30-day cooling off period. Following that ... and only then ... are we legally allowed to strike.”

Filling in the shortages

The 2% reduction in flying over the next few months should “see us back on track,” said Alaska spokesperson Alexa Rudin.

“We’re calibrating our capacity to match the number of pilots,” she said. “The next time you go to fly, you can expect us to be reliable and your flight will go on time.”

Acknowledging that the crew shortage should have been flagged earlier, von Muehlen said the pilot crew planning team must now report directly to her.

And responding to the widespread anger over the customer service phone delays, she said that passengers affected by a cancellation should not call the regular support numbers. She said a phone number provided on the cancellation notification is a special line for which “the hold times are minutes.”

Von Muehlen said Alaska has hired 388 pilots since October. These largely come from regional airlines flying smaller jets or turboprop planes and take several months to train.

Alaska is training more pilot trainers for the new-hire classes and more check pilots for the operational training. Von Muehlen said she expects 30 new hires to graduate and become line pilots this month.

A complication is that because Alaska is phasing out its Airbus A320 jets, it has about 350 A320 pilots who will have to be retrained in batches to fly Boeing 737s.

This takes up scarce training resources. Alaska currently has just one 737 MAX full flight simulator. By the summer it expects to have three.

At the March 28 employee meeting, von Muehlen said 360 newly hired and trained flight attendants would join the line on April 1.

“I certainly expect the flight attendants to be in a much better place by June,” she said. “Likewise, for our pilots, I expect that by the summer we will be in a better place.”

Rudin said Alaska will work with all passengers whose travel plans were ruined to sort out compensation for extra expenses and the trouble caused.

“I’ve checked with our care team and they feel very confident that they’re working with all of our guests who are impacted,” she said. “I think we’re in good shape there.”

Yet Alaska’s customer support remains glacially slow. The online chat function at the airline website on Friday cited a response time of one hour and hold time on the customer service phone line was 5 to 7 hours.

As for the Abarbanels, after about two hours on the phone from Florida, “mostly on hold,” Alaska booked them on a flight home Sunday.

“They sent me a single coupon for a $100 discount, good for one year,” Mary Beth Abarbanel said via email. “Reservations said they could not tell us what was refunded and what was not.”

For that, she was told she needs to contact customer service.

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