Flight cancellations lead to hectic holiday travel for Alaskans

Five Alaska Airlines planes parked at gates
Alaska Airlines planes are parked at several Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport gates on Jan. 5, 2022. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

‘Twas the night before Christmas Eve, and Michael Mahmood was planning to visit his girlfriend’s family in Denver for the holidays. 

He drove up from Seward to Anchorage. Then he got an alert: His flight from Seattle to Denver was canceled. He went to the Anchorage airport anyway, and saw the customer service line.

“There was just a line that went from the stations all the way to the end of the airport,” he said. “And it hit the back wall and it started to curve. So I just walked out.”

Mahmood wasn’t alone. Tens of thousands of people had their travel plans disrupted over the holiday weekend. Airlines canceled thousands of flights, many due to severe winter storms that caused havoc in the Lower 48. The wave of delays and cancellations left some travelers stranded at airports and some, like Mahmood, never caught any flight.

Mahmood said he had his weekend flights canceled over and over again.

First was his Seattle-Denver flight. Then his flights to and from Seattle got canceled, too. He was rebooked on another flight for the next night. Then, that flight was also canceled. He was rebooked again. A different airline. And, that flight got canceled as well. 

“The next available flight that the app showed wasn’t until (Tuesday), right before midnight, so tonight,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be in Anchorage all through Christmas and yesterday. So I just drove home because I knew the weather was going to be bad.”

Anchorage-based travel consultant Scott McMurren described it as a “perfect storm” hitting the Pacific Northwest.

“You had ice, snow, some freezing rain and some wind coming through in Seattle and Portland, and even here in Anchorage,” McMurren said.

While most delays occurred at airports in the Lower 48, McMurren said there were also weather issues in Anchorage, leading to several flights getting rerouted to Fairbanks instead. 

Trudy Wassel, deputy director at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said weather concerns included high winds and blowing snow, but the airport itself was better off than some in other states.

“The good news is the airport never closed,” Wassel said. “We have amazing operations, facilities and airfield maintenance crews that kept this airport open and available for flights to land and take off.” 

The Seattle-Tacoma airport wasn’t so lucky, with several runways closing for hours over the weekend. 

Kyle Potter, executive editor of travel and flight deal website Thrifty Traveler, described the weekend as one of the most hectic travel seasons on record. He said the number of flights canceled was “unprecedented” 

“We can safely say this was one of, if not the single worst, airline meltdown that we’ve seen, certainly within the last decade, but probably ever,” Potter said.

Potter said one of the biggest culprits for hectic travel nationwide was Southwest Airlines, which canceled thousands of flights a day over the weekend. He said Alaska Airlines, the major air carrier for the 49th state and the Pacific Northwest, was a little less hectic, but there were still many cancellations. 

“Alaska Airlines has been struggling,” Potter said. “They canceled 10-20% of their flights yesterday and again today.”

In a statement Tuesday, Alaska Airlines recommended all passengers check their flight status before leaving for the airport. Winter weather throughout the country has left planes and their crews stranded, it said.

In Juneau, airport parking lots remained packed as residents continued to struggle to leave Seattle.

Juneau airport manager Patty Wahto said both long-term and short-term parking lots, which fit about 250 cars total, were at capacity on Tuesday. She said Juneau residents should avoid parking at the airport for the next day or two.

“It’s just over the top right now,” she said. “We’re seeing cars parked in spots where they really shouldn’t be parked, and it’s blocking people in.”

Juneau resident Geralyn Davis was set to fly to Anchorage at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday for a medical treatment. At midnight, her flight was canceled.

“I’ve been flying up there for over four years now to have this done, and I’ve never had a cancellation,” she said.

Alaska Airlines booked Davis a seat on a Thursday morning flight. Now, she has to reschedule her doctor’s appointment and transportation from the airport.

“I’ve got a friend that picks me up when I arrive in Anchorage, and she drives down from Wasilla, which, you know, it’s a one-hour drive, and we plan that too,” she said. “So it’s just a lot of pieces that it upsets when it gets canceled.”

Potter, with Thifty Traveler, said he anticipates flight cancellations to continue in the future, as airlines work to fill high flight demand after shrinking their workforce during the pandemic. 

KTOO’s Katie Anastas contributed to this report.

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.

Previous articleMount Young: Aleutian volcano is renamed for explosive Alaska congressman
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Tuesday, December 27, 2022