SEATTLE — Dozens of Alaska Airlines flights were canceled early Friday, largely due to a shortage of pilots, some of whom picketed the airline later in the day in Seattle and elsewhere.
Alaska Air and the union representing the airline’s 3,100 pilots have been locked in contract negotiations for nearly three years. Officials with Alaska Airlines acknowledged that some flight cancellations were “connected to a shortage of pilots which has created operational challenges.”
Alaska Airlines canceled more than 120 flights on Friday — about 9% of its overall operation — impacting more than 15,300 travelers. A company spokesperson said additional cancellations are possible over the weekend.
Cancellations at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport included 68 Alaska Airlines flights, according to FlightAware.
The airline notified passengers whose flights were affected and earlier on Friday was working as “quickly as possible to make things right and get them to their destinations,” an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said.
Contract negotiations between the airline and the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing Alaska pilots, began in 2019 and are currently before a federal mediator. In a statement Friday, union leaders blamed Alaska for failing to prepare for an upswing in travel.
“Alaska Airlines failed to properly plan for increased travel demand and take the steps necessary to ensure it attracted and retained pilots,” the union executive council said in an statement.
Dozens of pilots hoisted picket signs Friday afternoon at the Hilton hotel near the airport. Similar demonstrations were scheduled for four other Alaska Air hubs.
Beyond pay, the key sticking points in the negotiation appear to be job security and schedule stability. Both parties assert they are ready to strike an agreement, though the union argued Friday that the airline is not yet serious about reaching a contract.
“They’re trying to distract the public from their mismanagement and blame the pilots who helped save their company” for the cancellations, union leadership said in a statement. “Pilot leaders have been warning for years that pilots will choose to fly for other airlines due to an inadequate contract that will only exacerbate existing staffing challenges.”
Alaska contends it is committed to reaching an agreement, but that any deal must allow the company “to maintain growth and profitability for a strong future.”
After a pandemic slump, Alaska Air eked out a $14 million profit during the final fiscal quarter of 2021, a year that saw it bring in $6.2 billion in revenue. Last month, the company outlined plans to increase the size of its fleet by 100 aircraft — bringing the total to 400 planes — while raising its annual revenue by $400 million within the next five years.
Retention has been a significant issue for the company, which has seen employee unions produce online advertisements featuring former Alaska workers enjoying new jobs at other airlines. Jenny Wetzel, vice president of labor relations for Alaska Airlines, said in a statement Friday that “a new pilot contract remains a top priority for Alaska.”
“We’ve put a package on the table that’s competitive and addresses the issues most important to our pilots,” Wetzel continued. “It’s a significant financial investment in our pilot group while recognizing that we are still working to recover from $2.3 billion in losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are eager to conclude negotiations quickly so our pilots can enjoy these new benefits as soon as possible.”
The airline hopes to hire 300 more pilots by the end of the year.
Frustrated travelers vented on social media about botched vacation plans and reported waits of up to 10 hours to speak with an airline representative about rescheduling flights. Many said they couldn’t fly out for a day or two.
Robyn Dold, of Battle Ground, had planned to fly to Missouri on Friday with her husband, daughter and son-in-law to attend her father-in-law’s funeral. The family received an email from Alaska at midnight — six hours before they were to take off — that said their flight was canceled.
Dold spent hours Friday on hold with the airline, and then in line at Portland International Airport, only to learn Alaska could not get them to the funeral on time — or even to a city within 10 hours’ driving distance.
“We’d go with the flow if it was a vacation, but this is something that has a due date that we can’t change and it’s heartbreaking,” she told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “My husband is beside himself. His father was his very best friend.”
Dold, who was to deliver the eulogy, will instead watch the funeral on a one-way livestream with her husband from home, she said.
“What I think really irritates me the most, honestly, is that we weren’t given any notification ahead of time that this was a possibility. We could have made other arrangements ahead of time,’” Dold said. “That’s what’s really disappointing.”
The pilot contract is currently the subject of a mediation with the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that coordinates labor-management relations in the railroads and airlines industries. The next mediation session is scheduled for later in April.