Alaskans endure air travel anguish as weather and virus keep them grounded days on end

Toni Hawkins of Fairbanks says this is the only photo she took on her “attempted vacation.” She says she waited in this line for five hours but couldn’t get a flight out of Anchorage. (Toni Hawkins)

Staff shortages due to the coronavirus and bad weather have combined to snarl air travel since Christmas, and it’s left a lot of Alaskans stranded.

The double whammy affects all domestic airlines, but Alaska Airlines is among the hardest hit, due to heavy snow in Seattle, its hub.

On Wednesday alone, Alaska Airlines canceled 179 flights.

Travelers took to social medial to post photos of unclaimed luggage piling up at baggage claims in Anchorage. Some told of grumpy crowds waiting endlessly in Seattle. Alaska Airlines reported that wait times on its phone lines were as long as 20 hours.

Bags at an airport and people in line.
Dozens of suitcases that arrived late are collected at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Tuesday. (Bart Rudolph)

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Chris Dimond, a union organizer from Anchorage, was stuck at the Fairbanks airport on Wednesday, studying the flight schedules. His first flight never arrived, but he’s an optimist. 

“And I’m now re-booked on — I don’t remember which flight it is. It is supposed to leave Anchorage here in about 15 minutes so I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said.

That flight was canceled, too. But Dimond thought the weather in Fairbanks was improving. He could see the runway now. Surely a plane would land to take him to Anchorage.

He was less than 400 miles from home, where he hoped to spend his birthday and greet the new year. But renting a car wasn’t an option. 

“Because the road conditions were so bad, they weren’t renting anybody cars,” he said.

https://twitter.com/dimond_chris/status/1476244049572941827

Meanwhile, his 19-year-old daughter is supposed to fly Thursday from Bozeman to Juneau.

“I’m trying to coordinate a contingency plan for her as well, because she has to go through Seattle,” he said. “So it’s been a hectic day.”

Dimond said he urged his daughter to delay her trip until the Seattle backlog clears, but she wanted to take her chances.

“I just warned her that she could be spending some time sleeping on the airport floor, for a few days,” he said. “So make sure to bring a pillow and a little blanket there in her air travel bag.”

Dimond ended up scoring the last seat on a flight due to leave Fairbanks in the afternoon and he was hopeful. 

“This one is a 737,” he said. “I think it should make it.”

Anchorage residents Jennifer Sonne and her husband had relatives to call on when their connecting flight in Atlanta was canceled on Monday. She knows how lucky they are.

“If my aunt didn’t live here in Atlanta, it would have been hotels and possibly a rental car and all of those expenses incurred,” Sonne said. “Or we could’ve stayed in the airport and that would’ve been a pretty uncomfortable situation.”

Many travelers told of having to extend their hotel stays and their car rentals, taking more days off work, seeing the cost of their vacation multiply. Others posted accounts of hellish airport scenes.

“Crying. Lots of crying,” tweeted Megan Holland, an Alaskan who endured travel delays in the Anchorage and Seattle airports. “I overheard conversations of people apologizing for not being there before for their father’s surgery. Another family behind me in line at one point started verbally planning how they were going to ration out food/money the next few days.”

Some people blamed their airlines — for not having enough staff or for dropped calls after they’d waited hours to get through. Others said it was no one’s fault but still heartbreaking.

“I just want to start by saying how sorry we are,” said Marilyn Romano, regional vice president for Alaska Airlines, based in Anchorage. “I understand the impact this has. Particularly during holiday times when people have waited, sometimes maybe up to two years now, to be together. And then to have their travel plans disrupted by something like this.”

Romano has some suggestions: Delay all unnecessary travel until Jan. 3 or later. Rebook online, not by phone. If your flight is canceled, don’t go to the airport. If you flight is canceled after you’ve checked in, go to baggage claim for your luggage before you leave the airport.

Romano said airline staff are working to get everyone where they need to go.

“I’ve heard great stories of kindness shown to our employees, by our guests, and it is appreciated,” she said.

As for Dimond in Fairbanks, the 737 was delayed but it landed in Fairbanks and took off again on Wednesday, with him in seat 19F. For one optimistic traveler, a happy birthday after all.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.