Alaskans are stuck on vacations that won’t end

A baggage claim area filled with unclaimed bags
Luggage was piled up in baggage claim in Anchorage Monday while travelers waited in line to find out what became of their bags. (Scott McMurren/Alaska Travelgram)

Susan Hayner of Anchorage is grounded in Las Vegas, with three children under 10.

“Oh, you know, we’re fine. We’re just frustrated. We want to get home,” she said. “Kids need to be in school. We need to be at work.”

They made it to Nevada in time for her daughter’s hockey tournament, despite getting stuck in Seattle for 41 hours. Then their return flight was canceled.  Now what was supposed to be a one-week trip is stretching to almost two.

“We just extended our stay in the hotel we were staying at before,” Hayner said. “It’s a Marriott, so it’s decent. But things are starting to add up, you know, unexpected costs.”

Hayner and her family are among the many Alaskans who went out of state over the holidays and are now stuck on an unwanted vacation extension. Nationally, airlines have cancelled more than 15,000 flights since Christmas Eve, due to a combination of weather and employees sidelined by COVID-19.

Alaska Airlines canceled 100 flights on Monday, according to flightaware.com.

That, and the cancellations from prior days, has a lot of Alaskans in the lurch. Wait times on the phone was four hours, Alaska Airlines said on Twitter Monday. That’s an improvement over last week, when the airline reported hold times of 20 hours. Alaska recommends using the website to change reservations. Some travelers report that the website seemed jammed. When they did get through, several told us, they were rebooked on flights leaving five to seven days later.

Hayner considered taking the long way home — flying to other airports to see if they had flights to Anchorage. They considered other carriers. They looked at flights from New York and Atlanta. They even considered going via Hawaii.

“Yeah, we were gonna drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to be on that direct flight. There’s nothing available until January, I think 11th,” she said. “We’re going to drive to Denver, but there’s nothing out of Denver directly to Anchorage. You have to connect in Seattle. We were gonna drive to Phoenix, but my friends are stuck in Phoenix right now until January 10. There’s absolutely nothing.”

So they were resigned to racking up bills. A longer hotel stay. More days with the rental car. Monday they made a trip to Target for essential supplies, like nail clippers and emergency toys. Each child was allotted a $10 budget.

Meanwhile, back home their doodle misses them, and they owe their dogsitter more with each passing day.

They’ve heard the airline might reimburse them for some of their spending, but they don’t know how much.

Scott McMurren, who writes the Alaska Travelgram newsletter, said it wouldn’t surprise him if Alaska Airlines spread some money around, beyond what’s legally required, to ensure goodwill. He said it seems to him that bad weather is the primary cause of the cancellations.

“My sense is that COVID is a contributing factor, but there was so much bad weather, particularly in Seattle,” he said.

But Hayner said she’d heard it was primarily staffing problems, and to her it feels like this is one more thing lost in the pandemic: the trust she used to have in the reliability of air travel.

“Now, you know, we can’t take anything for granted anymore — like having a set schedule, or arriving at our destination,” she said. “Or going home.”

The only thing Hayner feels she can rely on now is uncertainty.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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