Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While much of the travel scrutiny fell upon Southwest Airlines this holiday travel season, passengers in the Pacific Northwest faced similar issues with Alaska Airlines.

Passengers looking to fly to or from Seattle, Portland or Missoula on Alaska faced delays, cancellations, long lines and hours on the phone. One passenger said she missed Christmas with her family in Missoula, even after several attempts to reach an airline employee to rebook her flight.

“My original flight to Missoula was Dec. 24 at 9:35 p.m. and it was delayed two hours,” said Alyssa, whose flight was to originate from Seattle. “At 11:15 p.m., it was announced we'd be boarding in 15 minutes. After that 15 minutes had passed, it was announced the flight was canceled due to the flight crew being at their max flight limit.”

Alyssa, who asked that her last name not be used, said the airline instructed passengers to retrieve checked bags from baggage claim and find the airline's passenger desks for rebooking.

She stood in line for 30 minutes before the airline closed the desks and moved passengers to a separate desk. By then, it was 12:30 a.m. on Christmas morning.

“When I went to the new line and saw how extremely long it was, I decided to head home and call customer care the next morning to try and rebook. I did so and ended up on hold for over 8 hours and no one ever answered.”

Arctic storm causes travel headaches

Alaska said it cancelled more than 130 flights on Sunday, Dec. 25, following an ice storm that hit the Pacific Northwest. The storm initially prompted delays at Portland and Seattle-Tacoma international airports – both Alaska Airline hubs – but soon spread to surrounding airports, including Missoula.

attachment-Alaska Airlines Seattle

The company said its delays, which began on Friday, Dec. 23, were related to “out-of-place aircraft and crews.” In the days to come, it would be related to the weather.

While still on hold with customer care, Alyssa returned to Seattle-Tacoma on Christmas Day after not being able to reach anyone on the airline's phone to rebook her original flight the night before.

“While I was in line, I managed to rebook my flight online for that night at 9:35 p.m.,” she said. “About an hour before boarding, this flight ended up being delayed and then canceled as well, along with 2 other flights to Missoula due to weather conditions. We were again instructed to retrieve our checked luggage and go out to the main desk for rebooking. When I arrived at the baggage claim, it was in complete chaos.”

Alyssa said luggage from multiple flights had been placed along the walls and around the baggage carousels, and the line to the baggage claim desk “was a mile long.”

After finally retrieving her bag, she again attempted to reach customer care, this time at a different number provided by a passenger, who said it had a shorter hold time.

“When I called the number, it said it would be 2.5 hours hold time, but I was on hold for 4.5 hours and no one ever answered,” Alyssa said. “Many other flights had been canceled to Tampa, Sacramento, New York City, Boston and Portland, so the line to the desk was astoundingly long.”

The airline on Wednesday said it was still addressing baggage issues.

“Our Alaska team has been hard at work to reunite guests with their bags,” the airline said. “Reuniting bags with our guests is a time-intensive process that involves confirming the shipping address for each bag. This process is expected to be completed over the next several days.”

Missoula delays and cancellations

As winter weather rolled in from the coast, it eventually spread across the country. Seattle and Portland were first and as a result, Friday, Dec. 23, shaped up to be one of the roughest travel days in Missoula, as aircraft didn't arrive.

“All the Alaska flights were pretty much canceled that day to Seattle,” said Missoula Montana Airport Director Brian Ellestad. “Then we got freezing rain on the evening of Christmas day and we didn't get in any of our overnight aircraft. Every day a different hub got hit. One day it was Dallas, so we had delays and cancellations there. Then then it was Denver and Minneapolis.”

Freezing rain covers and Alaska Airlines jets in Seattle on Dec. 23. (Alaska Airlines photo)
Freezing rain covers and Alaska Airlines jets in Seattle on Dec. 23. (Alaska Airlines photo)

The ripple effect rolled into subsequent days. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 3,900 flights in the U.S. were canceled on Monday, Dec. 26, while another 7,582 were delayed.

A large number of delays or cancellations continued into Tuesday, Dec. 27, with most of those being attributed to Southwest Airlines. In Missoula, with flights to and from Seattle on Alaska, things began to return to normal.

“Most of our hubs got hit one day at a time. One carrier at a time kept getting delays or cancellations every day,” Ellestad said. “But for us, everything has been operating from Tuesday onward.”

Airlines that serve Missoula including Alaska, Delta, United and American, have agreements in place to rebook passengers on one of the carriers.

In its own statement, Alaska said fare caps are built into its pricing model. It added that it has further lowered fares in “select cities” and was doing all it could to get passengers, whose travel was impacted by the winter weather, to their destination.

“Due to the busy holiday week, flight loads are extremely heavy and reaccomodation options are limited. We're doing everything to get our guests to their destinations safely, including booking guests on other airlines,” Alaska said.