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Business/Economy

Alaska Airlines to cut 200 flights a day and park 30 jets as coronavirus reduces air travel

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2019, file photo, Alaska Airlines planes are parked at a gate area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

SEATTLE -- The head of flight operations at Alaska Airlines told his pilots late Sunday that the carrier will cut 200 flights per day through March, out of roughly 1,300 a day in normal times. And in the next few days, Alaska will park 30 jets out of its mainline fleet of about 230 aircraft until further notice.

Capt. John Ladner, Alaska's vice president of flight operations, also said the airline "will likely be pulling down our Hawaii operation to limited essential service," and he said Alaska is "considering cessation of operations to Costa Rica."

"We evaluate Canada and Mexico daily but are still operating into these countries," his note adds.

The cuts fulfill the plan Alaska announced last week to shrink capacity in response to drastically reduced passenger traffic due to the coronavirus crisis.

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The much larger Southwest Airlines told employees Monday that it is cutting 1,500 flights per day starting Friday out of its schedule that at peak season is about 4,000 flights per day. And Southwest too said it's weighing cuts in service to Hawaii, which has implemented a quarantine on arriving visitors.

Ladner's message to pilots warns that, "This is a very fluid situation. Our projections continue to evolve."

An Alaska customer service agent in San Francisco, who asked not to be identified to speak freely, said most Alaska planes flying out of there are about 90% empty.

He described driving to work along traffic-free highways and arriving at the airport where social distancing is not a problem in the large empty spaces.

A week ago, after all six Bay Area counties issued a "shelter-in-place" order, Alaska's chief operating officer Gary Beck sent employees an internal message laying out some of the strange new logistics of airline life in the time of coronavirus.

Pilots, cabin crew and other employees traveling for work to such destinations "will have to 'shelter in place' at your hotel," he told them. And since restaurants are closed, they'll have to rely on take-out and delivery for meals.

Hotels will provide transportation to the airport, Beck told staff. But even though planes are flying nearly empty, it's no longer acceptable to hitch a ride home on an empty seat as airline crews typically do.

"Non-essential travel is not allowed at this time," Beck explained.

Meanwhile, pilots must still show up for their regular training updates in company flight simulators. The spaces and equipment used for training are being disinfected often, the airline told its pilots.

To avoid layoffs or furloughs as flights are cut, Alaska is inviting staff to take voluntary leave.

Ladner's email told the pilots he's working with the pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, on agreements to provide incentives for pilots to take leave in order "to mitigate possible staffing reductions."

He said the 30 jets marked for storage, a mix of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, will be parked at airports in Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Greensboro, North Carolina.

Ladner noted that a limited number of employees have tested positive for COVID-19, including one pilot.

"We follow strict Centers for Disease Control guidance and privacy rules to ensure those who were or could have been in close contact are notified and adhere to formal protocols," he wrote. "We have been in contact with our impacted pilot who is recovering well."

Ladner ended his message by addressing "valid questions regarding why we are still operating at all."

"Transportation is the lifeblood of our economy," he wrote. "Not only do we provide a service for everyday passengers, we carry aid workers, government officials, military personnel, key business leaders, and of course the groceries, medical supplies, documents, and many other items the communities we serve depend upon."

“Keeping this lifeline functioning is essential,” he added. “Alaska must maintain a strong presence to keep our company viable.”

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