Winter weather delays lead to hectic holiday travel for Alaskans

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

The night before Christmas Eve, Michael Mahmood was on vacation visiting his girlfriend’s family in Denver.

He drove from Seward to Anchorage. Then he got an alert: his flight from Seattle to Denver was cancelled.

“There was a line all the way from the train station to the airport terminus,” he said. “And then I hit the back wall and started to turn. So I just started walking.”

Mahmoud was not alone. Tens of thousands of people canceled their travel plans over the holiday weekend. Airlines have canceled thousands of flights. Much of that is due to the severe winter storms that wreaked havoc on Lower 48. A wave of delays and cancellations has left some travelers stranded at airports and some like Mahmoud not getting on their flights at all.

Mahmoud said flights over the weekend have been canceled multiple times.

First was his Seattle-Denver flight. Later, flights to and from Seattle were also cancelled. He was rebooked for another flight the following night. Later that flight was also cancelled. He was rebooked again. Another airline. And that flight was also cancelled.

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

Anchorage-based travel consultant Scott McMullen described it as a “perfect storm” to hit the Pacific Northwest.

“We had ice, snow, freezing rain and wind in Seattle and Portland and even here in Anchorage,” McMullen said.

Most of the delays occurred at airports in the southern 48 states, but McMullen said Anchorage also had weather problems and some flights were rerouted to Fairbanks instead.

Trudy Wassel, deputy director of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said the weather was a concern, including strong winds and snowstorms, but the airport itself was doing better than in other states.

“The good news is that the airport was never closed,” Wassell said. “We have great operations, facilities and airfield maintenance personnel to keep this airport open and available for landing and takeoff flights.”

Seattle-Tacoma Airport wasn’t so lucky, with several runways closed for several hours over the weekend.

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

“If not the worst airline meltdown in the last decade, it’s arguably the worst in the last decade,” Potter said.

Potter said one of the biggest culprits in national hectic travel was Southwest Airlines, which canceled thousands of flights a day over the weekend. Alaska Airlines, the main carrier in the Northwest, said it was a little less busy but still had many cancellations.

“Alaska Airlines is struggling,” Potter said. “They canceled 10-20% of his flights yesterday and today.”

In a statement Tuesday, Alaska Airlines recommended that all passengers check flight status before departing for the airport. The plane and its crew were stranded due to winter weather across the country, it said.

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

Juneau Airport manager Patti Wert said both long-term and short-term parking lots, which accommodate a total of about 250 cars, were full on Tuesday. said they should avoid parking at the airport.

“It’s climaxing right now,” she said. “I see cars parked where they shouldn’t be parked, and that’s blocking people from passing.”

Juneau resident Jeralyn Davis was scheduled to head to Anchorage for treatment at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. In the middle of the night, her flight was cancelled.

“I’ve been flying there for over four years to make this happen and I’ve never had one canceled.

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

“I have a friend who will pick me up when I arrive in Anchorage, and she will drive an hour to Wasilla. We are planning that as well,” she said. “So it’s only a lot of parts that get upset when it’s cancelled.”

Potter, with Thifty Traveler, said he expects flight cancellations to continue in the future as airlines strive to meet high flight demand after shrinking their workforces during the pandemic.

Katie Anastas of KTOO contributed to this report.

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