SEATTLE — After more than 15,000 Alaska Airlines passengers had their flights canceled Sunday and Monday, Alaska blamed the start of the month.
Despite a massive schedule debacle that began April 1 — causing hundreds of Alaska Airlines flight cancellations earlier this month that ruined the travel plans of tens of thousands of passengers — schedule planners at the Alaska crew couldn’t prevent it from happening again on May 1.
“Month-to-month transitions can be difficult for a number of reasons, but especially when they fall on a weekend,” Alaska spokesperson Bobbie Egan said by email.
Will McQuillen, Alaska Airlines board chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association union, said the issues run deeper than the schedule.
“I have to tell you there’s a transition from month to month, literally every month,” he said. “The fact that April and May have been such a problem, it really points to the bigger problem they have in attracting and retaining drivers.”
The union and management are deadlocked in negotiations over a new pilot contract. McQuillen said that with flight crew shortages across the industry, Alaska continues to lose pilots to other airlines, with four or five quits a week – “a rate we’ve never had before. seen”.
Alaska management blamed April’s chaos on a shortage of pilots after an outbreak of the omicron virus disrupted its spring training program for pilots.
In response, Alaska cut flights by 2% through June in a bid to ensure it had enough pilots to meet the schedule.
But on Sunday, the calendar reverted to May 1, and Alaska’s monthly transition slumped again, to a less extreme level than in April but still quite severe. The airline canceled 53 flights on Sunday and another 55 on Monday.
“Due to our operational difficulties in April, a significant number of our reserve pilots had already reached their monthly limit and were unavailable to be on call,” said Egan, from Alaska. “This, combined with a higher than usual no-show rate, has forced us into a staff shortage situation and resulted in delays and cancellations.”
ALPA’s McQuillen doesn’t buy that explanation.
“This airline has always run too lean. We use reserves much more aggressively than other airlines to cover flights,” he said. “Other airlines have more adequate staff to deal with the month-to-month transition.”
Working harder with reserve pilots increases Alaska’s productivity but leaves “no slack in the system,” McQuillen added.
“While this productivity may be pleasing to shareholders in the short term, it certainly has the opposite effect on passengers when flights are cancelled,” he said. “They don’t anticipate the problem.”
Travelers on social media over the weekend offered glimpses of dismay at the airline’s response to cancellations similar to a month earlier: One spoke of wait times 10 a.m. on customer service phones and online chat function down “due to high volumes.”
A poor response from customer support
On Tuesday, cancellations continued, but at a lower level. Alaska has canceled 33 flights, affecting 3,790 other air travelers on its network.
Of those, 15 were at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Alaska was the only airline with cancellations there on 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 parents, then learned late Monday afternoon that their direct flight home early Tuesday had been canceled.
With two aging parents unable to travel alone, he spent three hours on the phone trying to sort something out, but it proved impossible to accommodate them all on the same flight.
The youngest parents left in Alaska for Philadelphia, where they had to switch to American for a flight to Columbus. Meanwhile, Adhikari and the two older parents were flying United to Columbus via Houston on a new ticket he had paid for.
“I must have wasted half of my day yesterday figuring this out,” Adhikari said on Tuesday. “We will arrive in Columbus around midnight.”
Stephen Robinson was booked to fly back to Portland on Monday night from San Jose, Calif., with his wife and their 8-year-old son, who has mobility issues. Their direct flight was canceled on Sunday afternoon, however.
Robinson was stunned when Alaska booked the family on a “completely unworkable” route from San Jose to Portland via stops first in Seattle and then Spokane, a trek that made little sense and would have taken a little more than 12 hours.
When the Robinsons instead rented a car, drove to San Francisco, paid for a hotel there on Sunday night, then took an early morning flight to Alaska for Portland, the airline charged them $330 in travel expenses. change because the change to another city was “voluntary.”
“It was very disappointing,” Robinson said. “A fundamental breakdown in customer service.”
Eight days ago, on April 25, Constance von Muehlen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Alaska, informed staff in an email of a “new approach” intended to resolve the problems of planning.
“We have seen staffing or training issues in virtually every group since we began the process of restoring our capacity to pre-COVID levels,” von Muehlen wrote. “We need a sharper, more holistic look at capacity planning.”
She said she was centralizing the scheduling and staffing of a new resource planning team, led by Ryan St. John, who previously worked in financial planning.
“The work of this centralized team will include creating monthly schedules,” von Muehlen told staff.
Egan, from Alaska, said this new team, which didn’t come together quickly enough to report the issues that hit May Day, will now work to “identify the changes that need to be made so that this won’t happen again”.
“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 rebuilding our schedules to better match the number of pilots.”
ALPA’s McQuillen said it might be necessary to reevaluate whether the 2% schedule cut was enough.