EDITORIAL: EDITORIAL: After a brutal spring, can Alaska Airlines recover its reputation?

·5 min read

May 28—How the mighty have fallen.

Alaska Airlines, long beloved in the state that gave the company its name, built a name for itself through reliability and customer service over decades. In just a few short months, it's set that credibility on fire.

Because of a pilot shortage, the airline has resorted to paring its schedule and canceling flights, sometimes with little to no advance notice. Alaskans returning from trips Outside have found themselves stranded, stuck on hold in airports for hours trying to reschedule. Those trying to book travel to the Lower 48 have watched round-trip ticket prices soar, and even purchase of an itinerary is no guarantee the flights will go ahead as scheduled.

Logistical headaches

The disruption to Alaska Airlines' schedule began with the COVID-19 pandemic. As air travel numbers plummeted, airlines shed costs however they could, which eventually led to cutbacks in flight schedules and even dropping of less-busy routes. As a result, since air travel demand began returning to levels approaching pre-pandemic volume in 2022, planes have been booked full — and often overfull — leaving little chance for passengers who miss connections or suffer other mishaps to find a place on the next flight to their destination.

Compounding the issue, according to Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci, is the airline's overestimate of available pilots in April and May. Minicucci said the airline is short of its planned schedule by 63 pilots, and has had to cancel roughly 50 flights per day for 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 means several thousand people per day have been left high and dry, sometimes after already flying part of their itinerary. And when several thousand people per day need to rebook flights, that means Alaska Airlines' famously responsive customer service has suddenly begun to resemble an internet service provider's support line, with hold times stretching hours and agents sometimes unable to do anything more than commiserate with stranded passengers due to a lack of available flight space.

More than an airline

Capacity woes for air carriers are nothing 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 flies via Alaska Airlines — although other major airlines service Alaska, it's no exaggeration 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 started its "Club 49″ program for Alaska residents that let us retain some benefits — free checked bags, anyone? — as airlines were starting to cut back or charge extra.

The Anchorage-Seattle corridor has been a profitability backbone for the company, and it has moved aggressively to defend it when other players such as Delta have tried to move in. Despite occasional friction over typical air-industry maneuvering, such as less legroom and creeping fees for services that used to be free, Alaskans and Alaska Airlines have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. But during the past few months, when the airline has started to resemble some of its lesser competitors, Alaskans have been asking themselves how much they're willing to put up with before renouncing their loyalty.

That loyalty is being tested not only by canceled flights and delays, but high prices. In the month of June, the cheapest outbound one-way fares to Seattle from Anchorage aren't too far above normal — most days, the least costly ticket is between $150 and $200. But returning to Alaska is a different story: On some June days, the cheapest fare from Seattle to Anchorage already costs more than $500, a sum that only rises as flights fill up with summer visitors. It's even tougher traveling to and from Fairbanks, where on some days, the cheapest round-trip flights to Seattle will run Alaskans nearly $1,000. High ticket prices might be an effective way to increase margins and make sure that scarce seats command a premium, but they're also an invitation for other airlines to move in on the routes. Alaskans rely on Alaska Air as sometimes our only way to move around the state, or to visit loved ones and seek medical care Outside. Thousand-dollar round-trips just to reach the Lower 48′s doorstep effectively cut off that lifeline for many Alaskans.

The clock is ticking

In an apology video posted online in mid-May, CEO Minicucci said the airline's woes should smooth themselves out in June, when 114 more 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 wearing thin, the company is also in the midst of an intense labor negotiation with its pilots, who just last week signed off on a future strike if federal mediation proves fruitless. If a strike does occur, the current flight disruptions will look trivial by comparison.

More than just dollars and cents, however, it's Alaska Airlines' reputation that's on the line. "Long term, Alaska is a resilient airline with 90 years of history," Minicucci said in his message to customers, promising to "return to being the Alaska you can count on." That's a message the CEO should carry personally 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 repairing bridges that are currently on fire. As Minicucci knows, the goodwill it took 90 years to amass can disappear far faster if customers aren't satisfied — and other airlines would be only too happy to capitalize on Alaska's misfortune.