SEATTLE -- For Alaska Airlines — and its customers — April has been nothing but turbulence.
A run of flight cancellations that began April 1 saw Alaska cancel hundreds of flights and ultimately cut its spring schedule by 2%. The good news for travelers is that chaos appears to be passing, with the airline projecting that the flights on the schedule in the weeks ahead will have the crews they need to fly.
A shortage of pilots was to blame for the cancellation spree. Drawing up schedules in January, the airline anticipated having more pilots on its roster than it ultimately did. While the airline says it has resolved the scheduling problem, pilots remain in short supply.
[Travel chaos from pilot shortage just part of Alaska Airlines’ headaches]
Here’s what travelers planning to fly Alaska need to know:
The schedule has been fixed
On Thursday, Alaska announced it was cutting its schedule by 2% through June. In doing so, it believes it can avoid day-of-flight cancellations that snarled thousands of travelers’ plans early in April.
“Guests are being notified in advance and they’re being reaccommodated on other flights if their itinerary is impacted by crew-related cancellations,” said Alexa Rudin, Alaska Airlines managing director for communications.
But the bigger problem remains
The airline industry as a whole is short on pilots, but the problem has become particularly acute at Alaska. The airline, which employs about 3,100 pilots, saw 137 of its most experienced pilots retire early during the pandemic. Already this year, at least 32 Alaska pilots have left for other airlines and another 22 newly hired pilots jumped to other airlines before completing their training.
The company and the pilots union are three years into a contract negotiation that has become increasingly bitter. Union officials have publicly hinted at the possibility of a strike, a proposition complicated by federal regulations meant to keep transportation workers from striking.
Why are there still cancellations?
The big boards at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and online flight trackers like FlightAware.com continue to list dozens of Alaska flights as “canceled.” While technically correct, many of the flights were canceled days ago. Rudin said those notices will stop once an updated schedule flows through the system later this week
What to do if your flight is canceled
Alaska passengers whose flights have been canceled due to the crew shortage should receive an email that includes a special phone number that will get them expedited rebooking assistance, Alaska’s Rudin said Monday. That number is different from the general customer service line that was swamped with calls earlier in the month.
Federal protections for travelers impacted by flight cancellations leave plenty to be desired. Airlines are required to either book passengers on a later flight or, if they decide not to travel, refund their money. Airlines sometimes offer a voucher in lieu of a cash refund, but travelers are under no obligation to accept it.
What’s next for Alaska?
Alaska flights account for just over half the air traffic flowing through Sea-Tac Airport, and the SeaTac-based company is both a significant employer and a Northwest icon.
It’s also keen to grow. Talking with investors in late March, Alaska Air executives outlined plans to expand the fleet from 300 to 400 airplanes by 2025 — including both Alaska Airlines and regional sister carrier Horizon Air — and to increase annual revenue, which was $5.5 billion in 2021, by $400 million within the next five years.
The degree to which a shortage of workers will complicate those plans is unclear. In March, Nat Pieper, Alaska’s senior vice president responsible for the jet fleet and finances, acknowledged the 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,” he said. “But you’ve obviously got to have crew to be able to do that.”