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'I've never seen this before' — Alaskans grapple with holiday travel setbacks

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Sabine Poux/KDLL
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Airline disruptions are practically a hallmark of the holiday season in Alaska, as constant as Christmas cookies and 4 p.m. sunsets.

But travelers this year are enduring more severe delays than usual. A perfect storm of holiday traffic, COVID-19-related challenges and bad weather is stranding some Alaskans as they make their way back from holiday trips Outside.

Nikki Corbett and her family are stuck for an extra 12 days in Phoenix, Ariz. Corbett, who lives in Soldotna, is calling it their extended Christmas vacation. 

“We’re trying to stay as positive as we can," she said. "But, you know, it’s crazy. I’ve never seen this before.”

They were supposed to fly out last week, connecting through the Seattle airport. But that flight was canceled. A second attempt, set for Monday, was canceled, too. 

She said it’s been hard to find a flight for all six people in her family, including a baby and a toddler. They now have a reservation for next Tuesday.

“I’ve never experienced this before," Corbett said. "But I'm from Bethel and they’re experiencing this, as well, for the small air carriers, people trying to go to the village. It’s common. I’m used to it for being back home in the Bethel area. But not really for the larger airlines like this.”

A spokesperson from Alaska Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

But the airline said on its blog last week that cancellations and delays through Seattle stem from “winter weather, displaced crew members and aircraft, and the continued impact of the omicron variant on staffing levels.”

On Dec. 29 — the day before Corbett's original reservation — the airline canceled 170 flights.

Those delays can have trickle-down effects on smaller airlines, too, said Richard Cole, a spokesperson for Ravn Alaska.

“We had some flights that we expected to be relatively full that were not because folks didn’t make it into Anchorage," he said. "And then it all happens in a rush. So we have had some build up.”

Ravn also had to cancel most of its flights between Kenai and Anchorage this weekend, due to heavy windstorms in both cities.

But they’ve since been able to get back to normal in Kenai. Tuesday, the airline canceled one Kenai flight due to separate, mechanical issues.

Cole said other Alaska communities, like Dutch Harbor, are still waiting for the storm to pass. 

“And it’s particularly challenging right now because it is the beginning of 'A' season, which is the big cod and pollock season," Cole said. "So when you have a huge number of people trying to get to that community, the weather challenges we’re facing right now make it really hard for the folks in Unalaska.”

Adjustments for weather are par for the course for Alaska winter.

"But this has definitely been a tough week," Cole said.

For passengers like Corbett, waiting out the delays can come at a cost. She extended her family's AirBnB and rental car bookings, plus her parking reservation at the Anchorage airport.

“We’re looking at an additional $3,500 for our housing and our vehicle," she said. "And both my husband and I were supposed to be back at work tomorrow. So we’re out another 11 days of working. So it’s sort of adding up, I guess you could say.”

She’s waiting to find out if she’ll be reimbursed for her canceled flights. Reimbursement in part hinges on the reason for the cancellation, which she hasn’t been able to figure out. An Alaska Airlines spokesperson told her to save her receipts, just in case.

For now, it’s all about finding the silver linings. It’s over 50 degrees warmer in Phoenix than Soldotna today. Corbett and her family plan to seek out hikes they can do in the meantime.

And if they get stuck again, there’s always Plan Z.

“We’ll cross that road. If something happens, we might just start driving home," she said, laughing. "I’m not sure.”

After the last week, it doesn't sound like such a crazy idea after all.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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