Travelers can expect Alaska Airlines to keep canceling flights at high level for weeks
In a message to Alaska Airlines employees Thursday evening, CEO Ben Minicucci said the high level of flight cancellations since April will continue through this month but added that stability should return to the schedule in June.
"Of the 1,200 flights that we operate every day, we've been canceling about 50 of them, roughly 4%. This is coming at a time when flights are already full, so rebooking options are limited and many of our guests have experienced extraordinarily long hold times," Minicucci wrote.
"We will continue to see these cancels through June 1st. We are working to manage these to reduce the impact as much as possible."
The chaos has been damaging for Seattle's hometown airline.
Passengers whose travel plans have been severely disrupted found little help from the airline in finding alternative ways to their destination, with customer service phone lines citing hold times of up to 10 hours.
In a follow-up video message for the traveling public that was posted on YouTube Friday morning and sent via email to Alaska's mileage plan members, Minicucci offered an apology.
"I'm deeply sorry," he said in the two-minute video. "I hear every day from friends, neighbors and guests about how disruptive our flight cancellations have been."
He then reiterated the message he'd sent to employees, saying that "the month of May will continue to be choppy" but that "for June and beyond, we've made significant changes to ensure a high degree of reliability."
In his message to staff, Minicucci acknowledged that responsibility for the situation lies with management.
"Since April, we have canceled too many flights, disrupted too many plans, stretched our teams too far," Minicucci wrote. "There are no excuses. The leadership team and I take responsibility and we're executing a plan to get this right and ensure it doesn't happen again."
He also stressed that the chaos is not because of any action by the pilot union, which is in talks for a new contract and considering strike action. That option remains far off.
"I want to be clear — our pilots are not on strike," Minicucci said.
The reason for the spate of cancellations in April and May comes down to "not having enough pilots to fly our spring schedule," he told employees.
He said Alaska started April and May with 63 fewer pilots than needed to fly the published flight schedule. Management didn't recognize this shortage until too late.
After the initial flood of cancellations that hit on April 1, Alaska cut the flight schedule, but "there was no way to completely close the gap," Minicucci said.
He then outlined the plan to fix the problems: Management has centralized staff and schedule planning under one team and prioritized hiring, training and recruiting for pilots, flight attendants and other workgroups.
However, he said it will take some time for the complex operations of the airline to turn the corner. Relief is in sight only in June, he wrote, when an additional 114 pilots will be available.
He told employees the airline should be back on track in July and August.
"By July and through the rest of the summer travel season, we should be back to flying a reliable and well-staffed operation," Minicucci said. "An additional 50 pilots, 400 flight attendants and 200 reservations agents will have joined our ranks."
"While we have reduced our flight volumes for this summer, we are not reducing our hiring plans," he added. "Our goal is to have significantly more staff on board before we look to accelerate growth again."
The cancellations since April have shattered the faith of some longtime Alaska Airlines loyalists. Tom Lennon and his wife, both MVP Gold level in Alaska's loyalty program, were stranded in New Orleans when Alaska canceled their flight last weekend.
"I do not really know what it will take to recover my trust in Alaska," Lennon wrote in an email to the Seattle Times.
Minicucci ended his video message to the public with an appeal to passengers to maintain faith in the company.
"Long term Alaska is a resilient airline with 90 years of history," he said. "We'll get this right and return to being the Alaska you can count on."