Travelers can expect Alaska Airlines to keep canceling flights at high level for weeks

SEATTLE — In a message to Alaska Airlines employees Thursday evening, CEO Ben Minicucci said the high level of canceled flights will continue since April this month, but added stability should get back on schedule in June.

“Of the 1,200 flights we operate daily, we have canceled about 50, about 4%. This comes at a time when flights are already full, so rebooking options are limited and many of our guests have had extremely long wait times,” Minicucci wrote.

“We will continue to see these cancellations until June 1. We are working to control these to minimize the impact as much as possible.”

The chaos is damaging the Seattle airline.

Passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted have seen little help from the airline in finding alternative routes to their destination, with customer service lines citing wait times of up to 10 hours.

In a follow-up video message to the traveling public posted on YouTube Friday morning and emailed to members of the Alaska Mileage Plan, Minicucci apologized.

“I’m very sorry,” he said in the two-minute video. “Every day I hear from friends, neighbors and guests how disruptive our flight cancellations have been.”

He then repeated the message he had sent to employees, saying that “May will remain choppy,” but that “we made significant changes in June and beyond to ensure a high level of reliability.”

In his message to staff, Minicucci acknowledged that responsibility for the situation rests with management.

“Since April, we’ve canceled too many flights, disrupted too many plans, stretched our teams too far,” Minicucci wrote. “There are no excuses. The leadership team and I are taking responsibility and executing a plan to rectify this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

He also stressed that the chaos is not due to any action by the pilots’ union, which is in talks for a new contract and is considering strikes. That option is far away.

“I want to be clear: our pilots are not on strike,” said Minicucci.

[Airlines trim summer schedules, aiming to avoid high-profile meltdowns]

The reason for the spate of cancellations in April and May comes down to “not having enough pilots to fly our spring schedule,” he told employees.

He said Alaska started in April and May with 63 fewer pilots than was needed to fly the published flight schedule. The management recognized this shortage too late.

After the first wave of cancellations that hit on April 1, Alaska cut the flight schedule, but “there was no way to completely close the gap,” Minicucci said.

He then outlined the plan for resolving the issues: Management has centralized workforce and scheduling planning under one team, prioritizing hiring, training, and recruiting pilots, flight attendants, and other work groups.

However, he said it will be some time before the airline’s complex operations come into play. Redemption is not in sight until June, he wrote, when an additional 114 pilots will be available.

He told employees the airline should be back on schedule in July and August.

“By July and through the rest of the summer travel season, we should be flying again with a reliable and well-manned operation,” said Minicucci. “Another 50 pilots, 400 flight attendants and 200 reservation agents will have joined our ranks.”

“While we have reduced our flight volumes for this summer, we are not reducing our hiring plans,” he added. “Our goal is to have significantly more staff on board before we look to accelerate growth again.”

The cancellations since April have shattered the faith of some staunch Alaska Airlines loyalists. Tom Lennon and his wife, both MVP Gold-level in Alaska’s loyalty program, were stranded in New Orleans when Alaska canceled their flight last weekend.

“I don’t really know what it takes to regain my trust in Alaska,” Lennon wrote in an email to the Seattle Times.

Minicucci ended his video message to the public with an appeal to passengers to have faith in the company.

“Long-term Alaska is a resilient airline with a 90-year history,” he said. “We will rectify this and return to the Alaska you can count on.”

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