Flight Delays are Routine in Alaska

Traveling in the winter around Alaska often is a challenge. Not just for passengers, either. The folks who schedule the crews and the aircraft struggle to predict the weather and speculate whether connecting flights will be on time.

Honestly, though, most Alaskans understand the variables and are at least resigned to the fact that there has to be a certain standard to accommodate big planes coming and going.

This afternoon, I'm in Kodiak. The folks here tell me, frankly, I was lucky to get in last night. Yesterday afternoon, the wind was howling between the airport and the harbor. It was blowing in from the northwest, gusting up to 60 mph.

Of course, at the Era Aviation gate in Anchorage, the sky was blue, the sun was out -- and it was calm. Earlier, Era had canceled its afternoon flight. In fact, Alaska Airlines also had canceled a flight. But the pilots at Era seemed confident the weather would clear up and we could make the flight.

Those of us in the boarding area were weighing our options. Some of us were traveling to Kodiak -- others were on their way home. Several times, folks came up and asked that their bags be retrieved so they could make other plans. The sun set. The Era Aviation staff made announcements every 20 minutes about whether or not the flight would depart. This became a classic "creeping delay."

Finally, however, the gate attendant promised that a definitive "go, no-go" announcement would be made. And indeed, we took off. The flight itself was unremarkable. If anything, passengers were somewhat concerned that there would be major turbulence on the approach to Kodiak. Although there were a few bumps, it wasn't a big deal. On the ground, however, we rushed into the terminal because we could feel the wind buffeting the plane on the runway!

Hopefully, we'll have the same good luck tomorrow for the flight back home!

A couple of weeks ago, my Alaska Airlines flight from Juneau to Anchorage was canceled. Frankly, it's not unusual for flight plans to go sideways in Southeast Alaska. There are lots of mountains around the runways in Juneau -- and lots of weather moving all around.

But this was a little different. It wasn't until I got to the counter that I realized it wasn't because of weather that they had canceled the flight. It was "crew rest." Now, the last thing I want is a tired flight crew on a tricky approach. So I understand and appreciate the safety issues involved. And frankly, even if I did not understand it, it still is the law.

Airlines treat customers a little differently if their flights are canceled because of weather as opposed to other reasons. During the weather delay at Era, for example, nobody was going up to the counter asking for snack vouchers or overnight accommodations.

But Alaska Airlines was offering meal vouchers and 1,000-mile mileage coupons to travelers in Juneau.

The 1,000-mile vouchers were easy enough to redeem. However, the meal vouchers were another story.

In my case, I was looking at a seven-hour delay. So I just kept my car from Avis and went back downtown to have dinner with a friend.

Instead of giving you a check or cash for a meal, Alaska Airlines actually gives out "ticket stock" that participating vendors can send to Alaska Airlines for payment.

Well, trying to find a participating vendor in downtown Juneau was a joke. Oh, Alaska Airlines also offered $8 for dinner. That's a joke too. I finally found a sandwich for $8 and presented my "ticket stock." Everyone had a hearty chuckle after I finally shelled out the cash for the sandwich.

Perhaps the ticket stock works pretty well in the Sea-Tac Airport. Or maybe with the restaurant in the Juneau Airport. But Alaska's own currency did not work well out in the community.

I sent my $8 receipt in for payment to Alaska Airlines. I'll give you a full report if and when they send a check!

Oftentimes, carriers will go above and beyond the required accommodations for travelers, even if a delay or cancellation is weather-related. Several years ago I was on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu that got diverted to Fairbanks. Even though the diversion was weather-related, Hawaiian Airlines paid for travelers' hotel rooms. In fact, since there were not enough rooms, folks were volunteering to team up for the night so everyone could get a bed.

"What do airlines owe you if they cancel or delay your flight?" It's a common question these days. Although there are some basic guidelines, the true answer seems to be somewhat of a moving target.

This is a particularly important question in light of all the "Bill of Rights" talk circulating after the rash of planes being stuck on the tarmac for six hours or more.

While customer service is tough to legislate or regulate, the FAA finds it simpler to regulate safety -- which is an overriding consideration for all air travel, particularly in Alaska.

For example, I made a point of telling the Era Aviation pilot that I absolutely deferred to his judgment whether or not to fly to Kodiak in the wind and snow!

I think Alaskans are more adept at handling unexpected flight delays and cancellations than most travelers. But I hope that both airlines and passengers understand that an upset cabin full of passengers can be unsafe. That moves "customer service" into the safety category. I hope your next flight is a safe one. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for my flight tomorrow!

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant.

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