While en route for the flight from the airport near their Bainbridge Island, Washington, home in the early morning of April 1 to make a long-planned journey to the wedding venue at Tampa, Florida, the Abarbanel family received a notice of Alaska Airlines: Their flight was cancelled.
In the following days the pilot shortage in Alaska resulted in hundreds of late-night flight cancellations, which fueled anger among thousands of passengers that were delayed or stuck.
It was the final step for the Abarbanels who claimed they have had three prior Alaska flights this year cancelled or changed with a the last minute.
After having given up on being able to contact Alaska Customer Service — which had an average wait time of 10 hoursthey finally made it the flight to Tampa on Monday with alternative flights that they booked via Delta as well as JetBlue. They incurred substantial expense for rental car and hotel and lost two nights they had booked in a condo with a beachfront view.
“Our journey , planned for the future, was turned into a trip to hell.” Mary Beth Abarbanel, retired and traveling together with husband, and son who is now an adult in an email “Longtime Alaska customer, with an extensive bank account and miles. Alaska has now lost business.”
The airline might have to make an uphill climb to get above the clouds , which are currently obscuring its image of friendly and reliable service.
Constance von Muehlen, Alaska’s chief executive officer and executive vice president operating officer, blamed the debacle in scheduling to a string of unrelated setbacks that lasted for a number of months.
The outbreak of the coronavirus omicron and the winter storm in December caused delays in the transfer of pilots into the airline’s training pipeline she explained, and led to “a singular confluence of events.”
“We ought to have recognized this earlier and made the necessary schedule changes,” she conceded in an email sent to employees on Tuesday.
The pilot union The Air Line Pilots Association, has long ago warned management that about a crisis in staffing.
“We began late in the falland continued into the December storms due to the snow storm, we told”You’re not adequately equipped in the right way,’ ” Will McQuillen, ALPA’s Alaska council chairperson, stated during an interview. “This airline needs to have the flexibility to to respond to these situations. It’s running at a low level.”
The executives at Alaska discredit this as a form of negotiating with the labor union in the ongoing and difficult pilot contract talks.
A video from the inside Alaska pilot meeting highlights Alaska executives, just two weeks prior to the meltdown on April 1st were well aware of the imminent threat of a serious shortage of pilots and the danger of chaos.
At the meeting in mid-March One employee inquired: “Reserve coverage for next month is not enough to adequately staff the airline. What’s the strategy?”
John Ladner, vice president of flight operations, stated that the resignation of pilots to work for other airlines had cut down in the amount of pilots who were on call to fill the gaps in the schedule.
“We see the loss of pilots. It’s evident that the effect is being felt due to the small amount of reserves we’re able to replenish periodically,” Ladner told his pilots. “April looks like it’s expected to be quite a tough month.”
However, no immediate decision was taken to stop the flood of cancellations that struck the 1st of April.
Following the catastrophe, Alaska said it will begin to reduce its air program by 2 percent until June “to meet the current capacity of our pilots” of around 3,100 pilots. This is about 24 daily flights, freeing the flight crews of 24 for redeployment.
In this way, the company hopes that it will avoid any more day-of-flight cancellations.
“We will inform you prior to departure if your trip will be affected due to these schedule changes,” the airline promised passengers via its website on Thursday.
Concerning the stress caused to the passengers who were left stranded over the weekend, von Muehlen told, “we’re deeply sorry for the difficulties they may have faced.”
Alaska is not short of pilots, but also flight attendants as well as customer service representatives.
In a video from a March 28 meeting with staff members, an employee complained about the frustration of the reservation agents overworked who due to long lines had been “taking verbal abuse that was not enough to eject guests but enough to send agents in tears at the point of leaving in a high-risk manner.”
In a bizarre twist, staff shortages hit the airline just a few days after management announced its ambitious growth plans during the Annual Investor Day in New York.
Management’s growth story, which says Alaska is able to recover from the pandemic more than ever before and be able to capture larger markets will help raise the price of its stock.
Then, in New York, the leadership forecast that Alaska will expand its capacity for seats between 4and 8 percent each year until 2025, and by the end of next year, it will operate 24 more mainline jets than they was at the beginning of the year. Because Alaska has to hire 12 pilots for each additional plane added to its fleet, that’s around 300 more pilots required to handle the expansion on its own without taking into account retirees and other loss of pilots.
In an interview that took place in the month of March Nat Pieper, Alaska’s chief executive officer responsible for the fleet of jets and finances and finances, stated that the current pilot shortage was a major concern considering the airline’s future growth plans.
“We’ve had the balance sheet in order to do it. We’ve got airplanes coming,” said Pieper. “But you’ll need to have a crew in order in order to be able to accomplish this.”
The majority of U.S. airlines are facing severe labor shortages while the air travel industry recovers. The airlines all cut their personnel during the severe decline in the pandemic and some were not able to come back.
A few pilots who were close to reaching the age of retirement, 65, decided to retire early in the epidemic. In Alaska there were 137 of the most veteran veterans chose to retire early out of 3100 total pilots.
This has made the situation even worse in Alaska the lack of pilots have a variety of options. Alaska has seen a significant decline this year, as pilots resigned to join other airlines.
In the initial three months of the year 27 pilots on line quit for different airlines. Additionally, 22 were hired as pilots, but hadn’t completed their training , jumped ship to a different carrier.
There’s also a major non-attendance factor in pilot classes, since students accept an offer when Alaska offers, but then choose to change to another airline when they receive an offer.
“A few weeks prior to classes the pilots have withdrawn of the offers,” Scott Day, chief pilot of the system in Alaska informed the pilots during that mid-March pilot meeting held with Ladner. Day said that Alaska is currently overfilling classes by around 10% in order to offset the drop in enrollment.
ALPA’s McQuillen confirmed that five additional pilots quit in the last week, deciding to leave the company. which brings the total to 54 pilots who have relocated to better pastures this year.
In 2013 there were 43 Alaska pilots resigned during the whole year and even in pre-pandemic times, when pilots changed airlines due to reasons of their families or for geographical reasons and a number of 20 resignations was more common, McQuillen said.
The union believes that the amount of attrition shows that Alaska is behind major airlines, not only with respect to pilot compensation, but also the crew scheduling rules which determine if a pilot’s schedule can be flexed or not.
They are also unhappy that management isn’t willing to commit to limiting the amount of flights operated by smaller regional jets operated by pilots with lower salaries They see this as a potential danger to security for career advancement.
In the present deadlock negotiations for a contract both sides want the pay for pilots to be increased to the level currently set for other airlines. The issue is it’s the “quality of living” crew schedule and security of career issues which are preventing a settlement.
Pilots “will choose the carrier which offers the highest satisfaction and protection,” said McQuillen.
The talks on contracts are in a bind.
Many pilots turned out to vote for an extension of their contract at Alaska’s Seattle base in Seattle near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on April 1st. more than 1,000 people participated throughout its hubs.
Many passengers believed that the cancellations of flights were a consequence of this display of discontent, this isn’t the scenario. They were pilots on leave. It’s not a strike.
The company stated it was on the website “This informational picket wasn’t the reason behind the cancellations.”
However, von Muehlen and Jeff Severns director of operations for flights training pointed out the huge gap in the number of pilots hired as new hires in Alaska’s flight training program on April 1 as compared to the number expected.
“We began hiring new staff in October. They which was a huge success. The schoolhouse was full in through November, December and then each month thereafter,” Severns said. “When Omicron hit in December … we experienced delays in students at the schoolhouse who were sick due to Omicron, and instructors not readily available.”
He also said that the operational component of the instruction for new hire pilots, in which they fly alongside the pilot who is experienced, was affected by the weather-related delays and cancellations in December.
The result was that Alaska was able to have 63 fewer pilots available to fly on April 1 than originally planned at the time that schedules were established in January.
The union believes that the problems go deeper. McQuillen claimed that the rate of no-shows for training as well as the deportation in pilots from airlines “has absolutely nothing to do with omicrons and weather.”
The pilot contract negotiations was ongoing this week, before a mediator from the federal government, the talks were a failure and the talks broke off an hour before the start of Thursday. The impasse is more dire than it has ever been.
Ladner in a letter to the pilots in the evening addressed the pilots that night and complained about “ALPA’s inability to reach a consensus.”
“To be truthful We aren’t sure of the next steps we should take and are awaiting a response the advice of our mediator.” Ladner said in his.
The union issued an even more powerful message. While federal law on labor makes it difficult for pilots of airlines striking — but the government could apply a cooling-off time or even make an agreement McQuillen said that there could be a solution ahead.
“It’s our firm suggestion that Alaska pilots be financially prepared for a bigger battle to reach our common goals,” he wrote to his fellow pilots.
McQuillen on Saturday made clear that “a strike is possible in the event of legal sanction.”
In an email, he said that should the federal mediator determine “that both parties are at a deadlock the mediator can allow us to enjoy a 30-day cooling-off period. Then… it is only after that… will we be legally permitted to strike.”
To fill in the gaps
The decrease of 2% in the frequency of flights over the coming months will “see us returning to our normal routine,” said Alaska spokesperson Alexa Rudin.
“We’re making adjustments to our capabilities to meet how many pilots are on board we have,” she explained. “The next time you decide for a flight, count on us to be trustworthy and that your flight will be in time.”
While acknowledging that the issue of the crew shortage could have been identified prior to the incident, von Muehlen said the pilot crew crew planning team should now directly report to her.
Responding to the widespread discontent over the delay in customer service and the cancellation of flights, she advised that those affected by cancellations shouldn’t call regular customer support number. She explained that a number listed in the notification of cancellation is a separate phone number that “the wait times are in minutes.”
Von Muehlen said Alaska has recruited 388 pilots since the beginning of October. They are mostly regional airlines operating smaller turboprop planes or jets and can take several months to get trained.
Alaska has been training pilot instructors to teach the new hire classes as well as more check pilots to assist with the operational training. Von Muehlen said she expects 30 new employees to be able to graduate and become line pilots in the next month.
One of the issues is that, since Alaska is in the process of phasing out the Airbus A320 jets, it is home to around 350 A320 pilots who will need to be trained in groups for flying Boeing 737s.
This is a waste of training resources. Alaska currently has only one 737 MAX full flight simulator. The company expects to be equipped with three.
In the employees’ meeting von Muehlen said 360 newly hired and educated flight attendants would be joining the ranks on April 1.
“I definitely expect our air attendants will be in better position by in June” the flight attendant said. “Likewise for the pilots on our team, I am hoping that by summer we’ll be at a higher level.”
Rudin stated that Alaska will collaborate with any travelers whose plans for travel have been ruined in order to negotiate reimbursement for any additional costs as well as the damage caused by the incident.
“I’ve talked to our care staff and they’re sure that they’re working with every guest who are affected,” she said. “I believe that we’re doing a good job.”
But Alaska’s customer support is extremely slow. The chat feature on the airline’s website on Friday reported an average response time of 1 hour, and the hold time for the customer service phone line was from 5 to 7 hours.
For the Abarbanels After about two hours of calling in Florida, “mostly on hold,” Alaska booked them for a return flight on Sunday.
“They gave me one coupon that was worth $100 that is valid for one calendar year” Mary Beth Abarbanel told me via email. “Reservations claimed they couldn’t provide us with information on what was refunded and what wasn’t.”
In response the reason, she was advised that she needed to call customer service.
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