Flights in and out of Alaska largely returned to normal Saturday after days of major travel disruptions caused by a cloud of volcanic ash that had drifted from Russia and was finally dissipating.
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.
A total of more than 100 flights to, from and within Alaska were canceled this week as a result of the ash, including dozens of Alaska Airlines flights canceled Friday. Frustrated passengers within the state and those stranded elsewhere were left scrambling to make alternative plans as some experienced a series of flight delays and cancellations.
But on Saturday, as the ash continued to ease, so did the flight disruptions.
“We’ve returned to normal operations and have not experienced any significant cancels,” Alaska Airlines spokesman Tim Thompson said in a statement Saturday.
Information from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport showed far fewer flight delays and cancellations Saturday from previous days. Volcanic ash specifically is a danger to planes because it is abrasive and can cause engines to fail.
Although a “very large area” of gas leftover from the ash cloud still hovered over the eastern Gulf of Alaska near Sitka by Saturday morning, most of the actual ash appeared to be thinning and was becoming difficult to see via satellite, said John Cowen, a forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit.
“There have been some reports this morning from various air crews still spotting some isolated areas of potential ash,” Cowen said. “So this could still be a lingering problem for the next day or so, but we do expect things to be gradually improving.”
What forecasters said they expected to be a final advisory for the lingering ash was posted by the Anchorage Volcanic Ash Advisory Center on Saturday. The advisory will be active “until we feel comfortable enough to let it go,” Cowen said.
“We’ll keep evaluating it as time goes on,” he said. “Like I said, I do expect it to improve over the next day or so.”
The ash cloud from the eruption on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula stayed together longer than initially anticipated, and forecasters said this week that it was challenging to determine exactly when it would entirely dissipate. Much of the cloud was changing over from ash to gas starting Thursday and officials were monitoring future changes.
“As far as volcanic eruptions go, to have ash still floating around in the atmosphere five days after the eruption — and as far away from the eruption that we’re seeing — is pretty unusual,” Cowen said Saturday.
Satellite shows (in bright pink) the ash as it moves across the gulf. You can see different layers and the different speeds and directions it is taking. You can see the latest SIGMET/AIRMET at: https://t.co/3z3BciSYEC #akwx pic.twitter.com/SVeplIl9ki— NWS Juneau (@NWSJuneau) April 14, 2023
‘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.
ANC is open and operational! Travelers are encouraged to check their flight status with their airline before coming to...Posted by Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Friday, April 14, 2023
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 tried 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 also affected 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 hoped to make it to the festival.
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 wouldn’t be at the Folk Festival this year.
“It’s a big bummer,” he said. “It’s the highlight of my year.”