Flights cancelled without notification strand Bristol Bay passengers in Anchorage during holidays

Jan 8, 2019

PenAir and Ravn Alaska reduced their flights to Dillingham and King Salmon after PenAir became a part of Ravn Air Group at the end of December. Due to a glitch in a third-party computer system, many people were not notified that their flights were cancelled as a result of the schedule change, stranding them in Anchorage for days at a time.

Passengers board a Jan. 5 PenAir flight from Anchorage to Dillingham.
Credit Avery Lill/KDLG

When Chelsea Ayars’ 8-year-old daughter boarded a plane in Portland on Dec. 30, the final leg of her journey from Anchorage to her home in Dillingham was already cancelled. In fact, it had been cancelled more than a week prior. But neither of her parents were notified until the unaccompanied elementary schooler was arriving in Anchorage.

“Twenty minutes before her flight was scheduled to arrive in Anchorage, I got a call from Alaska Airlines, saying that her flight to Dillingham had been cancelled, and I needed to find somebody to come pick her up immediately or she would be flown back to Portland. However, when they looked at the Portland flights, she wouldn’t even have made it back in time. She would have either been stuck in Seattle or stuck in Anchorage,” said Ayars.

A family member who lived in Kodiak was able to pick up the young girl and bring her back to the airport for her flight to Dillingham the next day. Ayars called the experience terrifying, both for her and for her child.

Ayars’ daughter was among many passengers on flights between Bristol Bay and Anchorage whose flights were cancelled without notification in recent weeks.

Laurel Sands sat at the Anchorage airport, trying to get a standby flight, for three days after her flight to Dillingham was cancelled without her knowledge.

“There’s another couple with Togiak who are in the same place with me, and we have been meeting every morning, and we get to hang out all day together, and they are just as frustrated. I mean this is going to be incredibly disruptive,” said Sands. “This is no longer just my issue. It’s a community issue at this point.”

Laurel Sands (right) spent three days at the Anchorage airport trying to get on a standby flight after her flight was cancelled.
Credit Avery Lill/ KDLG

Adam Meade arrived at the Ravn terminal in Dillingham on Christmas Eve only to find the flight was cancelled, and he was scheduled to leave an hour earlier on a PenAir flight.

"When I got to PenAir, they told me the flight was leaving in 5 minutes and that I had to go park my truck at long-term parking and they weren’t going to hold the plane for me,” said Meade. “And so I drove out and parked, but I broke my ankle about a year ago, so I’m still recovering from that, and I had to run back from long-term parking to get on that plane. Kind of screwed up the rest of the vacation, my ankle was just swelled up and pretty sore from that run. It was pretty frustrating.”

So why weren’t passengers notified? According to Alaska Airlines’ spokesperson Tim Thompson, at least some of the trouble goes back to a glitch in a third-party computer system called Sabre.

“That keeps all code shares and all airlines connected so that we can see what other airlines are doing, and they can see what we’re doing,” Thompson explained.

After PenAir became a part of Ravn Air Group at the end of December, both PenAir and Ravn Alaska’s flight schedules were reduced.

PenAir is now flying between Anchorage and Bristol Bay once per day on Sunday, Monday and Friday. It flies twice on Wednesdays. Ravn is flying once per day on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Ravn spokesperson Debra Reinwand told KDLG in an email, “At this time, Ravn and PenAir are trying to match the service level to meet market demand. The intent and schedule provides for daily service to the region.”

That means that some flights booked prior to the schedule change were cancelled, including PenAir and Ravn flights booked through Alaska Airlines.

“When we did get the information from PenAir for the schedule change, that was forwarded to Sabre, which is the typical process,” said Thompson.  “But for some reason, and it’s unknown how that occurred, that information did not make it fully through the Sabre system. At that point Sabre would have notified all passengers that had booked on AlaskaAir.com that there had been a schedule change. Unfortunately, that did not happen.”

Sabre and Ravn Air Group confirmed that there was a glitch in the computer system.

“It was an issue with a third party that delayed customer communication,” said Sabre.

Ravn added that passengers were provided with hotel rooms and meal vouchers and that “the airlines are actively working to keep passengers informed moving forward and address the situation.”

According to Alaska Airlines, the problem persisted from Dec. 26 until late last week, when the glitch was discovered and fixed.

“We want to apologize to all of the passengers that were impacted by either missed connections, cancellations or delays in their travel, especially over the holidays because we realize that’s tough,” said Thompson. “We’ve been working pretty closely with Sabre to make sure this has been rectified.”

Several people who were stranded in Anchorage for days after cancelled flights made it on a Jan.5 PenAir flight.
Credit Avery Lill/KDLG

On top of that technical snafu, passengers say that some PenAir flights have been cancelled due to mechanical errors. Between the technical difficulties, weather trouble and reduced schedules, many people have been stuck in Anchorage for days at a time.

As an alternative to waiting for a standby seat, some people have chartered flights. Janice Andersen-Berglof said she and her husband paid $500 each for a seat on a Lake Clark Air charter from Anchorage to Dillingham with eight other passengers after they were bumped from their Ravn flight shortly after the New Year and told they could not fly home for more than a week.

Flying in and out of Bristol Bay is notoriously difficult, and residents grow accustomed to frequent weather delays. But several seasoned Bristol Bay flyers said that these travel difficulties are beyond what is normal.

“This is just drastically worse than I’ve ever experienced with them,” said Ayars, who has been flying with PenAir for about 15 years. “I understand that we have to have schedule changes because a new company is taking over. What I don’t understand is completely erasing flights with no notice to the consumer. It was so panic-inducing for me to try to figure out who I was going to get to watch my child overnight and get her to the airport, somebody I trusted. It was terrifying for her. There has to be something in place where a child is not put on a plane, knowing she’s not going to make it to her final destination.”

As of Tuesday, the next flight with open seats from Anchorage to Bristol Bay is a Ravn Alaska flight on Jan. 15.

Contact the author at avery@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.