SEATTLE — After more than 15,000 Alaska Airlines passengers had their flights canceled Sunday and Monday, Alaska blamed the turn of the month.
Despite a massive scheduling debacle that began on April 1 — causing hundreds of Alaska Airlines flight cancellations early in the month that ruined the travel plans of tens of thousands of passengers — Alaska’s crew schedule planners couldn’t prevent it happening again on May 1.
“Month-to-month transitions can be challenging for several reasons, but particularly so when they fall on a weekend,” Alaska spokesperson Bobbie Egan said via email.
Will McQuillen, chair of the Alaska Airlines council for the Air Line Pilots Association union, said the problems run deeper than the calendar.
“I gotta tell you, there’s a month-to-month transition, literally every month,” he said. “The fact that April and May were such a problem, that really does point to the greater issue that they’re having with attracting and retaining pilots.”
The union and management are deadlocked in negotiations over a new pilot contract. McQuillen said that with flight-crew shortages industrywide, Alaska continues to lose pilots to other airlines, with four or five resignations a week — “a pace we’ve never seen.”
Alaska’s management attributed the April chaos to a shortage of pilots after the omicron virus surge disrupted its pilot-training program in the spring.
In response, Alaska cut its flights by 2% through June in an effort to ensure it had sufficient pilots to fly the schedule.
But on Sunday, the calendar turned over to May 1, and Alaska’s monthly transition fell apart again, at a less extreme level than in April but still bad enough. The airline canceled 53 flights on Sunday and 55 more on Monday.
“Due to our operational difficulties in April a significant number of our reserve pilots had already flown to their monthly limitation and were not available to be on call,” said Alaska’s Egan. “This, combined with a higher than usual absence rate, forced us into a short staffing situation and resulted in delays and cancellations.”
ALPA’s McQuillen doesn’t buy that explanation.
“This airline has always run too lean. We use the reserves much more aggressively than other airlines do to cover flying,” he said. “Other airlines are more adequately staffed to deal with the month-to-month transition.”
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Working the reserve pilots harder increases Alaska’s productivity but leaves “no slack in the system,” McQuillen added.
“While that productivity may be nice for shareholders in the short term, it certainly has the opposite effect on passengers when flights are canceled,” he said. “They’re not getting ahead of the problem.”
Travelers on social media over the weekend offered glimpses of disarray in the airline’s response to the cancellations similar to that of a month earlier: One told of 10-hour hold times on the customer service phones and the online chat function down “due to high volumes.”
A poor customer support response
On Tuesday, cancellations continued, though at a lower level. Alaska canceled 33 flights, impacting another 3,790 air travelers across its network.
Of those, 15 were at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Alaska was the only airline with cancellations there Tuesday.
One traveler, who only gave his last name, Adhikari, to preserve his privacy, described the stress a flight cancellation can cause.
He flew from Columbus, Ohio, to Seattle for a family wedding with six relatives, then learned late Monday afternoon that their direct return flight early Tuesday was canceled.
With two aging relatives unable to travel alone, he spent three hours on the phone trying to sort something out but it proved impossible to accommodate all on the same flight.
The younger relatives left on Alaska for Philadelphia, where they had to switch to American for a flight to Columbus. Meanwhile, Adhikari and the two older relatives were flying United to Columbus via Houston on a new ticket he paid for.
“I had to waste half of my day yesterday figuring this out,” Adhikari said Tuesday. “We’ll get to Columbus around midnight.”
Stephen Robinson was booked to fly home to Portland on Monday evening from San Jose, California, with his wife and their 8-year-old son, who has mobility issues. Their direct flight was canceled Sunday afternoon, however.
Robinson was stunned when Alaska rebooked the family on “a completely undoable” itinerary from San Jose to Portland via stops first in Seattle and then in Spokane, a trek that made little sense and would have taken just over 12 hours.
When the Robinsons instead rented a car, drove to San Francisco, paid for a hotel there Sunday night and then caught an early morning Alaska flight to Portland, the airline charged them $330 in change fees because the switch to depart from a different city was “voluntary.”
“It was very disappointing,” said Robinson. “A fundamental customer service breakdown.”
Eight days ago, on April 25, Constance von Muehlen, Alaska’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, told staff in an email of “a new approach” intended to fix the scheduling problems.
“We have seen staffing or training challenges in virtually every group since we began the process of recovering our capacity back to pre-COVID levels,” von Muehlen wrote. “We need a sharper and more holistic look at capacity planning.”
She said she was centralizing crew schedule and staffing under a new resource planning team, led by Ryan St. John, who previously worked in financial planning.
“This centralized team’s work will include month-to-month schedule creation,” von Muehlen told staff.
Alaska’s Egan said this new team, which didn’t set up fast enough to flag the problems that hit May 1, will now work to “identify changes that need to be made so this doesn’t happen again.”
“The month of May will see our team continue to proactively cancel our flights eight or more days into the future,” she said. “We will be more resilient in June and beyond after we’ve re-built our schedules to better match the number of pilots.”
ALPA’s McQuillen said there may need to be a reassessment of whether the 2% schedule cut was enough.