YAKIMA — The continuing shortage of pilots and other employees, along with upgrades to its fleet of aircraft, will mean fewer Alaska Airlines flights between Yakima and Sea-Tac airports as of Sept. 7.
Alaska’s regional carrier, Horizon Air, will cut its daily flights to and from Yakima Air Terminal to one each direction, with both scheduled midday. The early morning departure to Sea-Tac and late-night arrival in Yakima will no longer be available.
“Staffing challenges continue to impact the flight schedules we can operate at Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air,” an Alaska Airlines spokesperson told the Yakima Herald-Republic on Wednesday, May 18, via email. “We’re committed to the Yakima Valley and hope to add more flight frequencies when conditions improve.
“We chose to keep that one specific (midday) roundtrip because it better connects to the majority of our network from Seattle and all the top connecting spots,” the spokesperson said.
Jaime Vera, airport operations manager at the Yakima Air Terminal, said he and other local officials have very limited input into the fall flight schedule changes.
“Currently we are trying to work with Alaska Airlines on this issue, but unfortunately it’s something we can’t control,” Vera said. “We ask our community to be patient — we know this is a frustrating situation. I know our community is eager to get back out and travel, and we’re grateful for that.
“We are working as aggressively as we can with Alaska to address the issues causing (the new schedule) and are hoping to resume those flights in the near future,” he added.
Vera said more than 6,000 pilots took an early retirement as the COVID pandemic greatly reduced air travel two years ago. Many of those pilots retired from major airlines, and many of their replacements are pilots at regional airlines, such as Horizon Air, which serves the Yakima airport. Finding and training new pilots takes time, Vera said.
“The challenging part is, it’s not just us. Wenatchee, Walla Walla, Spokane — we’re all in the same boat,” Vera said. “We’re into an era where there is a significant pilot shortage, and the airlines are adjusting their schedules to deal with that.”
Yakima is one of six regional airports which will have its Alaska Horizon flights cut to once a day in each direction, with Walla Walla; Wenatchee; Great Falls, Montana; Edmonton, Alberta; and Victoria, British Columbia, also facing schedule reductions on Sept. 7.
Current schedule syncs with SeaTac
Alaska Airline’s website shows flights from Yakima to SeaTac departing at 5 a.m. and 2:02 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 6 — similar to the schedule that has existed since August 2020, as restrictions due to COVID-19 began to ease and airline travel began to recover.
Departures from SeaTac to Yakima on Sept. 6 are scheduled at 12:40 and 10:50 p.m., again similar to the daily flight schedule since August 2020. Prior to the pandemic, there were three or four arrivals and departures between Yakima and SeaTac each day.
When Alaska’s reduced schedule takes effect on Wednesday, Sept. 7, a flight will depart from SeaTac at 12:20 p.m., then leave Yakima at 1:42 p.m.
Yakima resident Diana Rhodes, who along with her husband flies out of the Yakima airport 8-10 times a year, said the early morning and late night flights to and from SeaTac are popular with Yakima Valley travelers and will be missed.
“The vast majority of the time we fly out of YKM on the early morning flight since that allows us to catch morning flights out of SeaTac that arrive in cities in the central and eastern U.S. in the late afternoon or early evening,” Rhodes told the Herald-Republic.
“If we are able to take really early flights on our return trip, we can catch the midday return flight to Yakima, but we do end up on the late night flight a fair amount of time,” she added. “Particularly when the incoming flight is delayed and we miss the midday flight to Yakima, it has been very beneficial to have these late night flights available so that we don’t have to overnight in Seattle.
“In our experience, both the early morning flights out of Yakima and the late night flights to Yakima are usually very popular.”
Horizon aircraft adjustments
Besides adjusting its entire schedule due to pilot and staffing shortages — Alaska will have fewer daily flights to and from Portland, Spokane and Seattle as well — the Sept. 7 reduction in flights coincides with plans to change the aircraft used by Alaska Horizon.
Horizon Air, the sister regional carrier for Alaska Airlines, recently announced plans to transition to a single, more efficient fleet by the end of 2023, an Alaska Airlines spokesperson wrote in an email to the Herald-Republic.
“The Embraer 175 jet will become Horizon’s primary aircraft and we’ll eventually stop flying the Q400 turboprop aircraft,” the spokesperson wrote. “Horizon’s fleet currently consists of 32 Q400s with an average age of 13 years. We have 30 E175 jets which are each less than five years old with additional new E175s on order.
“Although Horizon has no plans to discontinue service to any of the communities it serves, the transition will impact our operations at various airports at different times as we scale back the number of Q400 planes in the fleet.”
Vera noted that the switch to new aircraft, which happens every 20 to 30 years, exacerbates the pilot shortage. New pilots joining Alaska Horizon are not being trained on the older Q400 aircraft, but those planes still are being used for flights until the new E175s replace them, creating more complications in scheduling pilots, he said.
The new schedule can be found at alaskaair.com for the adjusted service beginning on Sept. 7, the spokesperson wrote, adding: “Between now and then, service at these airports remains unchanged through this summer. Schedules are subject to change and additional flights may be added in the months ahead.”
One regional airport which won’t lose any Alaska Horizon flights is the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, which has between four and six daily arrivals and departures to SeaTac. The airport, with the symbol of PSC, has additional daily Seattle flights on Delta Airlines.
Buck Taft, administrator of Tri-Cities Airport, said the majority of his passengers travel to and from airline hubs such as SeaTac in the early morning.
“We have three peaks throughout the day. The early morning is very, very busy. That’s our No. 1 time slot,” Taft said. “Then early afternoon, right around lunch, we get another peak, and finally late afternoon, early evening, between the 4 and 5 o’clock hour.
“Those three peak periods tend to align with peak activity at SeaTac, in Salt Lake City, in Denver,” he added. “It allows people to fly to Seattle in the morning and come home that evening, or to make connections elsewhere in the country.”
Taft said the number of passengers flying in and out of Pasco has nearly returned to its pre-pandemic level.
“Our number of passengers was really, really up — we were really crushing it through 2019. Then of course we had the pandemic,” Taft said. “But so far for this year, through May, we’re within 9% of our 2019 numbers. Things are looking good for us so far.”
He hopes Alaska’s reduced flight schedule and the shortage of pilots nationwide will not hurt the rebound of air travel as pandemic restrictions ease.
“I know about the struggle (Yakima), Wenatchee and Walla Walla are going to have going to one flight a day. Spokane’s going from about 17 to 11, Portland’s going to have less flights, SeaTac’s going to have less flights,” Taft said. “I think we’re just in a sweet spot with our six flights a day, and we will be adding an extra flight during the summer, as we usually do.”
Rhodes, the Yakima resident whose family frequently uses Yakima Air Terminal, said she’s had good experiences using the Bellair Airporter Shuttle to SeaTac.
The bus service offers four daily westbound departures from Yakima to SeaTac, with additional stops in Ellensburg, Cle Elum and North Bend. These currently leave the Yakima Air Terminal at 5, 8 and 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., and are scheduled to arrive at SeaTac 3-1/2 hours later.
Eastbound service leaves SeaTac at 11 a.m. and 1:30, 4 and 7 p.m., with arrivals at the Yakima Air Terminal scheduled 3 hours and 35 minutes later.
Rhodes said the shuttle faces the same weather-related slowdowns and road closures as other vehicles using Interstate 90 during winter months, which is why she and her husband prefer Alaska Airlines flights between Yakima and SeaTac during those times.
She believes the planned reduction in flights could result in more Yakima passengers using the Pasco airport during winter months, even though it is far less convenient than the Yakima airport.
“Ultimately, I’m concerned that the longer YKM only has one flight a day, the more people here will find other ways to fly, which will decrease Alaska Air’s interest in having any flights to YKM,” Rhodes said.
“This also seems shortsighted on Alaska Air’s part, since if people drive to Pasco to catch flights, they will realize that other airlines have direct flights out of Pasco — to places including San Francisco, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Diego, L.A., Reno, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Minneapolis — which might result in fewer people flying Alaska in the long run.”