Alaska Airlines works toward full staffing, flight schedule by end of the year

Alaska Airlines would like to be back to 2019 staffing levels and flight schedules by the end of the year.

"That's our goal," Tim Thompson, company spokesman in Anchorage, said Monday.

From the worst of the pandemic-induced collapse in air travel in the spring of 2020, when the airline carried 4,000 to 5,000 passengers a day across its entire route system, Alaska was back up to 108,000 revenue passengers a day for the quarter that ended Sept. 30, moving toward its pre-pandemic number of close to 140,000.

Carrying all those passengers has meant bringing planes back into service, along with pilots and cabin crews, Thompson said.

Alaska, like other airlines, laid off employees when travel shrank in 2020. "We're trying to get back up to 2019 personnel," he said.

The airline employs about 22,000 people, and is calling back workers and has multiple job postings on its website.

Furloughed pilots and cabin crew have to requalify with the Federal Aviation Administration before they can go back to work, and the company has stepped up its retraining program at its Seattle base to bring back crew as quickly as possible, Thompson said.

Despite the efforts, the airline sometimes comes up short and has to cancel flights. Wrangell experienced that cancellation pain last Saturday, when Alaska canceled both its northbound (Flight 65) and southbound (Flight 64) service into town.

The Southeast cancellations were among about two-dozen flights dropped that day for lack of crew, Thompson said. "Hands down, we weren't at our best."

The airline runs about 1,200 departures a day. Between crew shortages, weather (dense fog in Juneau most of the day), and a few mechanical issues among the 300 planes operated by Alaska and its regional carrier Horizon Air, about 55 flight "segments" were canceled last Saturday.

A segment, Thompson explained, is one leg of a flight. For example, Flight 65 from Ketchikan to Wrangell is one segment.

That left the airline operating about 95% of its schedule, down from the usual 98% to 99% range, he said.

When short of crew, the airline tries shifting pilots and cabin crew to cover flights and maintain operations, but sometimes not enough people are available or are in the wrong place to staff the flights.

When deciding which flights to cancel during a crew shortage, the airline looks not only at available staff but also where that staff needs to be for the next flight and the next day.

Putting a crew on a flight that will take them out of position for another flight just rolls the problem into the next day, he explained. "It's all about placement of people."

Though Saturday's cancellations created problems for Alaska Airlines' travelers, they were minor compared to the strains at other airlines unable to maintain their schedules.

American Airlines scrapped about 1,900 flights between Saturday and Monday, about 10% of its schedule, according to several news reports. High winds that closed runways at its main hub in Dallas added to the staffing woes.

The airline reported it canceled nearly 21% of its flights on Sunday alone - more than 1,000 in all.

Southwest Airlines ignited a flurry of customer complaints three weeks ago when it canceled 3,100 flights over four days because of storms, staff shortages and other problems. Southwest said it needs to hire more staff to avoid a repeat.

Airlines nationwide have been caught with insufficient planes and staff as travel is rebounding stronger and faster than many had expected.

Transportation Security Administration data shows that the average daily number of passengers screened through airport security last week reached 1.8 million, about 84% of the same week in 2019. That was the highest number, other than holiday-weekend peaks, since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

American is hiring pilots, flight attendants and support staff to handle the growing passenger load, Chief Operating Officer David Seymour wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to employees. The airline plans to have almost 1,800 flight attendants return from leave starting this week, with plans to add 600 newly hired attendants by the end of December.


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