SEA-TAC — For yet another day, travelers anxious to fly to or from the Seattle area faced cancellations, delays, lost luggage, unexpected hotel stays and mounting frustration with the way airlines were coping — or not coping — with winter weather and pandemic-related staffing issues.
Since the snow began coming down Sunday, nearly 1,300 flights into and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have been canceled with hundreds more delayed. With another storm forecast for Seattle later this week, and airline industrywide staffing shortages unresolved, many travelers were bracing for days more of delays and disappointment.
“It’s just staggering,” said Jason Maddocks, a Seattle resident who has been marooned with his wife, Amy, in a Houston hotel at their own expense since their Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle was canceled Sunday — and hopes to be on a rebooked flight Wednesday.
As of 9 a.m. Wednesday airlines had canceled 259 flights into or out of Sea-Tac Airport, or roughly a quarter of all flights scheduled Tuesday, and 180 flights Wednesday, according to the website FlightAware.com. Another 183 flights scheduled for Thursday had also been canceled, according to the flight-tracking site. Wednesday’s cancellations at Sea-Tac Airport represented about a fifth of all cancellations within, into or out of the U.S. on Wednesday, according to FlightAware.
“We were going to meet family in Puerto Rico,” said Jeff Wilcox, who had to cancel the trip he and his girlfriend had planned after realizing their Sunday red-eye flight had been delayed too long to make their connection in Atlanta.
Tacoma resident Monica Alexander, meanwhile, spent two days waiting for her luggage after her Alaska flight to Las Vegas was canceled Sunday — only to learn Tuesday that her bags had gone on Vegas.
“So first of all, we don’t get to take our trip — and second I have a new job: chasing my bags,” said Alexander, who had hoped to go to Vegas with her husband for her 60th birthday.
Holiday air travel worldwide was thrown into chaos last week as a surge of coronavirus infections left many airlines so short-staffed that they delayed and canceled thousands of flights.
At Delta, a shortage of ground crew employees at Sea-Tac contributed to delays, said a Delta flight attendant who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job. A Delta spokesperson declined to comment on that claim.
But airline staffing problems were compounded by snow and record-low temperatures at some airports, including Sea-Tac. On Sunday, as heavy snow fell across the Puget Sound region, airlines reported more than 360 cancellations, or around 30%, of all flights at Sea-Tac Airport, according to FlightAware. Airlines canceled another 279 fights on Monday, representing around 25% of all flights that day.
Alaska spokesperson Bobbie Egan said it was taking up to 30 minutes to “de-ice a single aircraft.” The Seattle-based airline saw more cancellations than any other carrier, with around 145, or 40%, of its Sunday flights canceled, according to FlightAware. Late Tuesday, the airlined announced it would be “proactively thinning Seattle departures by about 20% to allow for the additional time … to deice aircraft.”
Also hard-hit by cancellations and delays on Sunday were Horizon, SkyWest and Delta.
Sunday’s mass of cancellations created “a domino effect” as airlines struggled to rebook passengers on future flights while still coping with staff shortages, said Kate Hudson, spokesperson for the Port of Seattle.
Not only were stranded passengers scrambling to find new flights, but the cancellations also meant many aircraft and flight crews weren’t at the airports they’d been scheduled to depart from. “It literally will take several days to get people and planes back in position where we can put them back into rotation,” Egan said.
Delays and cancellations often meant flight crews “timed out,” or went over federal limits regarding how long they can be on duty, which meant the later flights those crews were scheduled for also had to be canceled.
“Airlines are working really hard to play catch-up with rebooking passengers and reuniting folks with their luggage, but staffing issues could bring in further delays,” Hudson said.
Although the snow has since let up in Seattle, the National Weather Service is forecasting several new inches by Thursday.
As we head into Wednesday and Thursday, we’re proactively thinning Seattle departures by about 20% to allow for the additional time it takes to deice aircraft, a requirement during winter weather.
The cold snap was also compounding concerns for Seattle-area travelers.
“We just want to get home because we got all the pets at home, plus we’re worried about the pipes in our house,” said Paul Redman, a Seattle resident who was stuck in Florida with his wife and three kids for two days after their Alaska flight back to Seattle was canceled Sunday night.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Redman was happy to report that he and his family were finally boarding a return flight, by way of Philadelphia — but not before ponying up another $700 in hotel, taxi, and baggage fees.
Many affected passengers recognized the challenges posed by the pandemic and inclement weather — but often still blamed airlines for failing to prepare for weather issues or communicate with stranded travelers.
Many said they’d been given little help finding other flights or were forced to find (and pay for) hotel rooms while waiting for delayed or rebooked flights. Most said they’d been unable to speak with an actual customer service representative.
“Last night, I was on hold for three hours,” said Miles Mahon, a Seattle resident whose flight home from Boston was canceled and who was given an estimated wait time to speak with an Alaska agent of 21 hours and 33 minutes.
Egan, the Alaska spokesperson, acknowledged that the airline had been unable to respond to passengers’ queries in anything approaching a timely fashion.
Despite “working around the clock” to answer calls, “the number of guests impacted far surpasses our ability to handle them in as quick and timely manner as we would like,” Egan said. “It is not our finest moment and we feel terrible about the situation.”
Delta spokesperson Joe Warpinski said “we apologize to our customers for the delay in their travels,” but declined to comment on specific customer complaints about long hold times.
Not all passenger ire was directed toward airlines.
Nancy Cook, of Astoria, Oregon, said her flight into Seattle from New Orleans arrived as planned Monday— minus her baggage. But when she tried to book a Lyft to Tacoma, where she’d parked her car, the price she was quoted was nearly $350. “It was pretty crazy,” said Cook, who ended up taking a bus to Tacoma — for $3.25.
Still, many affected travelers and would-be travelers were trying to keep things in perspective.
“This could be so much worse,” allowed Alexander, the Tacoma woman whose Vegas flight was canceled. Despite her missing luggage, she wasn’t stranded or living in a hotel.
“I consider us blessed not to have those situations,” she said. “I just want my stuff back.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article misstated the name of the ride-hailing company referred to by a traveler and the day her flight arrived at Sea-Tac Airport.