After a brutal spring, can Alaska Airlines regain its reputation?

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How the mighty fell.

Alaska Airlines, long loved in the state that gave the company its name, has built a name for itself on its reliability and customer service over the decades. In just a few months, he set that credibility on fire.

Due to a shortage of pilots, the airline has had to cut its schedule and cancel flights, sometimes with little or no notice. Alaskans returning from trips outside found themselves stranded, stuck in airports for hours trying to reschedule. Those trying to book a trip to the Lower 48 have seen round-trip ticket prices skyrocket, and even buying an itinerary doesn’t guarantee flights will go as planned.

Logistics headaches

The Alaska Airlines schedule disruption began with the COVID-19 pandemic. As the number of air travel plummeted, airlines slashed costs as much as they could, eventually leading to cuts in flight schedules and even the scrapping of less busy routes. As a result, since air travel demand began to return to near pre-pandemic volume levels in 2022, planes have been booked out – and often overcrowded – leaving little chance for passengers who miss connections or experience difficulties. misadventures of finding a place on the next flight to their destination.

According to Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci, the problem is compounded by the airline’s overestimation of available pilots in April and May. Minicucci said the airline is behind its planned schedule of 63 pilots and has had to cancel about 50 flights a day over the past two months. As he pointed out, that’s only 4% of the company’s flights, but it’s easy to do the math and realize that that means several thousand people a day were left dry, sometimes after have already completed part of their itinerary. And when several thousand people a day need to book flights, that means Alaska Airlines’ customer service, renowned for its responsiveness, has suddenly started to look like an internet service provider‘s helpline, with wait times stretching into hours and officers sometimes unable to do anything but empathize with stranded people. passengers due to a lack of available flight space.

More than an airline

Air carrier capacity issues are not new. But Alaska Airlines isn’t just another airline for residents of the Last Frontier. A huge percentage of passenger and cargo air traffic to, from and within the state goes through Alaska Airlines – although other major airlines serve Alaska, it’s no exaggeration to to say that Alaska Airlines feels like our conduit to the outside world. It’s a special relationship that has been recognized by both Alaskans and the airline, which launched its “Club 49” program for Alaska residents that allows us to retain certain benefits – free checked bags, anybody ? – as airlines began to cut back or charge extra fees.

The Anchorage-Seattle corridor has been a backbone of the company’s profitability, and it has acted aggressively to defend it when other players such as Delta have attempted to locate there. Despite occasional friction over typical airline industry maneuvers, such as less legroom and crawling fees for services that were once free, Alaskans and Alaska Airlines have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. But in recent months, as the airline has begun to resemble some of its smaller competitors, Alaskans have wondered how much they’re willing to put up with before giving up their loyalty.

This loyalty is tested not only by canceled flights and delays, but also by high prices. In June, the cheapest one-way fares to Seattle from Anchorage aren’t too much above normal – most times the cheapest ticket is between $150 and $200. But returning to Alaska is a different story: on some days in June, the cheapest fare from Seattle to Anchorage is already over $500, a sum that’s only rising as flights fill up with summer visitors. It’s even harder to travel to and from Fairbanks, where on some days the cheapest round-trip flights to Seattle cost Alaskans nearly $1,000. High ticket prices could be an effective way to boost margins and ensure scarce seats command a premium, but they also invite other airlines to roam the routes. Alaskans rely on Alaska Air as sometimes our only means of getting around the state, or visiting loved ones and getting treatment while away. Thousand dollar round trips just to reach the Lower 48 gate effectively cut off that lifeline for many Alaskans.

The clock is turning

In an apology video posted online in mid-May, CEO Minicucci said the airline’s woes should ease in June, when 114 additional pilots are expected to be available. For his sake and that of his airline, we hope that’s an accurate prediction. In addition to Alaskans’ patience running out, the company is also in the midst of an intense labor negotiation with its pilots, who last week signed a future strike if federal mediation proves unsuccessful. If a strike does occur, the current flight disruptions will seem insignificant by comparison.

More than dollars and cents, however, it’s Alaska Airlines’ reputation that’s at stake. “In the long run, Alaska is a resilient airline with 90 years of history,” Minicucci said in his message to customers, promising to “return to the Alaska you can count on”. It’s a message the CEO should personally deliver to Alaskans, at Chamber of Commerce meetings, Rotary Club events and other gatherings. An in-person mea culpa and explanation of the factors at play could go a long way toward fixing the bridges that are currently on fire. As Minicucci knows, the goodwill that took 90 years to accumulate can disappear much faster if customers aren’t satisfied – and other airlines would be only too happy to capitalize on Alaska’s misfortune. .

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