Unexpected repairs to Alaska Airlines freighters delay holiday season shipments

Alaska Air Cargo converted 737-700 freighter. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines)

This week, Alaska Airlines announced that the three cargo jets that it uses to deliver freight to communities statewide needed repairs and would be pulled out of service. That means delays on rural deliveries during the holiday season. 

On Tuesday, Israel Aerospace Industries, the company that retrofits Alaska Airlines freighters, informed the airline that there was an issue with their 737-700 cargo jets.

“It centers around the integrity of the bulkhead of the bulkhead known as a 9g rigid barrier wall,” said Alaska Airlines spokesman Tim Thompson. “That is located on the top deck of the aircraft, and basically it separates the cargo area from the flight deck. What that basically does is it prevents freight from moving forward if there was a rapid or sudden deceleration of the aircraft.”

While the jets are under repair, Alaska Airlines has had to put a hold on new general and premium cargo orders to the Alaska communities that use the service, including Kotzebue, Ketchikan, Utqiagvik, Nome and Bethel. Goldstreak and medical cargo orders are still being accepted.

There are also delays on existing orders as the airline works to clear out its cargo warehouse. 

One of the people missing out on shipments is Ariel Sollis, the director of the Kotzebue Boys and Girls Club. She says she relies on air freight shipping for supplying the club’s activities.

“Our activities for the Lights Festival coming up,” Sollis said. “So lithium batteries, which are hard to get anyway and I finally found one that would ship, as well as LED lights, all of our craft supplies for our clubhouses, our rural clubhouses. And so currently none of our clubhouses have any items for them.”

Sollis says living in a rural community often means that shipments don’t come in the timeliest of manners, but she’s mostly concerned with how this could affect her lesson plans. 

“There are times that the kids will find that I’ve put an activity on the schedule three or four weeks in a row,” Sollis said. “And they get really frustrated, they start to lose motivation in being able to do it because the items aren’t here.”

Thompson with Alaska Airlines says that while the cargo planes are being fixed, the airline is utilizing some of their 737-800 and 900 passenger planes to move some of the freight. 

“With our current scheduled passenger service, we are trying to up-gauge aircraft when possible so we can get more freight in the bellies of those aircraft,” Thompson said. “What we’ve done is we’ve taken three passenger aircraft out of the scheduled passenger system and they are being used strictly as freighters.”

Thompson says that since Wednesday, the airline has been able to move about half of the freight that is currently in their Anchorage warehouse to communities. While there’s no exact timeline on when the cargo jets will be up and running again, Thompson says that they’re aiming for a fix before the end of the holiday season. 

“We really do look at using these passenger aircraft as dedicated freighters as a short-term solution and look forward to getting the freighters back into service as quickly as possible because of the high demand and because particularly with the holiday season quickly approaching,” Thompson said.

Thompson says Alaska Airlines is aiming to get the warehouse emptied by next week.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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