The super-stranded: Some Alaskans are having epic troubles trying … – Anchorage Daily News

Nikki Corbett hikes with her family, husband Joseph Corbett , daughter Sydney Corbett and son Orson Corbett in Phoenix, Arizona, during her extended vacation. Not picture are sons Nate and Eli Corbett who hiked to the top. (Photo by Nikki Corbett)
If everything works out the way it is supposed to, Nikki Corbett will get back to Alaska late Thursday night, seven days later than she planned.
“Our original plans were to fly home the 30th,” Corbett said from outside Phoenix, Arizona, where a 10-day holiday has elongated into a two-and-a-half-week saga.
Corbett, her husband and their four kids have been stuck ever since she was alerted by text last week that their flight had been canceled. What ensued was a frantic, prolonged scramble to re-book tickets while shuffling between Airbnbs and car rentals.
“I’ve never experienced this before,” Corbett said.
Across the country, and particularly along the West Coast, the busy holiday travel season collided with stormy winter weather and staffing shortages exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 surge. The problems were most acute at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the main hub serving Alaska-bound flyers.
Even though conditions have improved slightly over the last few days, the disruptions created a cascade effect, causing what many say are unprecedented problems getting back to Alaska. While plenty of people have managed to fly with relatively few disruptions, others are waiting a week or more for flights, juggling exceptional logistical workarounds and paying for unanticipated expenses to bide their time somewhere more comfortable than an airport terminal.
[More than 1,300 flights canceled Tuesday as omicron, weather continue to hamper operations]
Alaska Airlines passenger jets prepare to depart from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 5, 2022. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Those delays will likely linger for some Alaska Airlines customers. The company announced Thursday that because of “unprecedented employee sick calls” due to the omicron variant, it is reducing flights by 10% through the end of the month.
“This will give us the flexibility and capacity needed to reset while continued flexible travel policies enable guests to adjust their plans accordingly,” said external affairs manager Tim Thompson.
“The majority of this schedule reduction will occur in the Lower 48. There are no significant changes planned to our normal January flying to communities in Alaska,” Thompson said.
“We’re gonna be stuck here in Arizona forever,” Corbett said with a laugh, adding that after their first cancellation, they secured passage on a direct flight from Phoenix back to Anchorage for Jan. 3. But then that trip was abruptly canceled, too, igniting another scramble for lodgings. For a while, they were not slated to leave until Jan. 10, but were able to finagle their way home Thursday, though it meant splitting the family up on the last leg.
“After all the stress of that, I was joking, we went through the stages of grief,” Corbett said, ticking off denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
[Alaska Airlines cutting flights by 10% through January due to omicron-driven staff shortage]
The family has been paying for the unanticipated extended stay themselves, saving receipts for expenses like housing, transportation, meals and incidentals. Corbett estimates those costs will approach a thousand dollars by the time they get to Anchorage, plus more fees from keeping their car parked so long at the airport before driving three hours in the dark to their home in Soldotna. But since both parents are missing days of work, the total loss is even higher.
“If I’d known, I would have brought my work computer,” she said.
On top of her day job, Corbett makes and sells qaspeqs. When she found out she’d be stranded, she bought a used sewing machine off Craigslist. Since then, she’s sewn seven new qaspeqs.
“It’s been helping my mental health,” she said.
For some Alaskans stuck on protracted vacations, the lack of clear communication from airlines amid unprecedentedly long delays has been a main source of frustration.
“This isn’t a day or an overnight, this is a week. And that’s a pretty big deal,” said Jill Balgie, who had her holiday travel trip to Oregon double in duration, from one week to two.
“I’m not sure why our flight got canceled,” said Balgie, who was supposed to fly back on New Year’s Day but is now scheduled to arrive home Friday afternoon. “I wanted to get a clear answer.”
Balgie and her 13-year-old son are in Oregon to help her husband, a travel nurse, get set up in a southwest town there as he starts a new gig. At first they were all staying in a hotel, but they were able to relocate to his new apartment, which Balgie estimates saved them about a thousand dollars in food and lodging costs.
Even still, she’s desperate to get back. She was scheduled to work. Her son has school. And she’s worried sick about her two teenage daughters, who stayed back at the family’s home in Anchorage, hunkered down amid last week’s fierce wind storms.
“It’s kinda like a ‘Home Alone’ situation,” Balgie said. “They think it’s pretty cool.”
At one point she weighed driving 10 hours to Las Vegas for a flight that would bypass the snarls at Sea-Tac. But no dice: Return tickets to Alaska were getting snatched up faster than she could figure out new logistical workarounds.
Lingering in limbo this week, Balgie has occupied herself by visiting area antique stores. Her son has been playing a lot of Pokemon Go.
Alaska Airlines said that it canceled 119 flights across its entire network on Wednesday.
“Like many other airlines, this latest surge of COVID is driving higher-than-usual absences among all our workgroups, consistent with nationwide COVID trends. This is compounded by the residual impacts of winter weather in several of our key hubs,” said media relations manager Cailee Olson in an emailed statement, after declining an interview request.
Kiana Belser picked up luggage for her parents at the Alaska Airlines baggage claim in Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, who are stuck in Georgia while attempting to travel back home to Alaska. (Bill Roth / ADN)
“The bodies are stuck in Seattle, but the luggage is here,” said Kiana Belser, who was at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Wednesday picking up bags belonging to family stranded out of state until Jan. 10. She had to dig through hundreds of pieces of luggage to find her family’s.
Belser sent her 10-year-old son, along with his grandparents, on a holiday vacation split between Florida and Georgia. Earlier this week her father and son were on their way home to Alaska when they ran headlong into the problems at Sea-Tac.
“When they got to Seattle, they saw over 200 people laying around,” Belser said. Weather scrapped their final leg to Anchorage, and her father was told it would be about a week before they could get them on a rescheduled flight.
“They decided to fly back to Georgia,” Belser said. “And they had to spend their own money to do it.”
It was hard enough being away from her son for the holidays, but this is the longest they’ve ever been apart. It’s a comfort for Belser knowing he’s safe with his grandparents and that when he returns he’ll get all the Christmas gifts that have been waiting for him.
[Omicron upends return to US schools and workplaces]
Belser was originally supposed to go on the trip, and now is glad she didn’t.
“I’m terrified to travel now. Just not being able to get back would not be fun at all,” she said.
Even travelers who do make it back to the state have had trouble continuing on to their final destinations. The outward ripple of disruptions in air travel has sapped any resilience from the system by flooding desperate people toward already-overstretched options, like rental cars, hotels and alternative transportation.
Corinne Smith had just returned home to Haines on Wednesday after getting stuck in Juneau for four days.
“I am back, I just walked in my apartment and am petting the cats,” said Smith, who works as a reporter at Haines’ public radio station.
After visits with family and friends in California and Oregon, Smith managed to fly through Seattle and onward to Juneau with minimal disruptions. Unfortunately, she was thwarted by a wholly different mode of transportation on Saturday.
“I had intended to take the ferry that night,” Smith said. “But the Matanuska was canceled. I didn’t get a notification about that, I saw it in the news.”
The state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced last week the ferry has to remain out of service through the end of January because of prolonged repairs and vendor delays.
Flights between Juneau and Haines that Sunday were either fully booked or canceled because of high winds. Same on Monday. Finally, on Tuesday, Smith boarded a small plane with a few other Haines-bound travelers, and braved the gusting gales to set off for the upper Lynn Canal.
“Frankly, I was terrified to fly, but I needed to get back to work,” said Smith, who had been reporting on a COVID-19 outbreak in Haines from her Juneau hotel room, using an elaborate fort configured from a sleeping bag as an improvised sound studio for recordings.
It was a bumpy, turbulent flight, and after passing Chilkat Inlet and descending to within a few dozen feet of the runway, the pilot abruptly turned. He made a second pass and descended, but had to abandon the approach once more.
Today was day 3 of trying to fly from Juneau to Haines. Flights have been canceled the past two days due to high winds. Today we flew, got about 50 ft above the Haines Airport, the pilot made 2 flyovers and then turned around. Too windy. Back to Juneau…
“We go for a third time, and the pilot pulls up and he’s like, ‘We’re going back to Juneau!’ ” Smith said.
Winds at the runway were too severe for a safe landing.
Early Wednesday morning, with rough seas and high winds, Smith boarded the ferry LeConte. Conditions were far from ideal, but she said by that point many travelers were just desperate for the certainty they would make it home.
Sunrise on the Alaska Marine Highway
“Pretty choppy, lotta people puked,” said Smith, who did not herself puke. “It wasn’t easy. But everyone was so relieved to go.”
She estimates that the extended stay in Juneau will end up costing her about $500, a manageable but substantial expense.
“This whole thing is very expensive. If there was reliable ferry service, a lot of this could be avoided,” Smith said. “These costs really add up for rural communities.”
Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.
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