Other Views: Alaska Air Group’s Turbulence May be Short-Lived


One of the Northwest’s iconic companies, Alaska Air Group, has been experiencing some turbulence lately. But there’s reason to think that the parent of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air has smoother flying ahead.

On April 1, 9% of the airline’s flights were canceled as off-duty pilots picketed at its hub airports. The airline said the cancellations were due to a nationwide pilot shortage and not directly related to the picketing. The cancellations and delays persisted into this week.

Frustrated travelers vented on social media about botched vacation plans and reported that there was up to a 10-hour wait to speak with an airline representative.

An Associated Press reporter talked with Robyn Dold of Battle Ground, who had planned to fly to Missouri on Friday with her family to attend her father-in-law’s funeral. They received an email from Alaska at midnight — six hours before they were to take off — that said their flight was canceled.

Dold said she spent hours Friday on hold with the airline, and then in line at Portland International Airport, only to learn Alaska could not get them to the funeral on time — or even to a city within 10 hours’ driving distance. “My husband is beside himself,” she said. “His father was his very best friend.”

Alaska is the busiest airline at PDX. Together with Horizon Air, which operates regional flights on smaller planes, it carried almost four of every 10 PDX passengers last year — almost 4.5 million people. And it’s ramping up its operations. The Port of Portland reports Alaska operated 2,676 flights at PDX in February, compared with 1,068 a year earlier.

Unlike many airlines, Alaska generally enjoys a good reputation. Recently, Aviation Week Network’s Air Transport World named Alaska the 2022 ATW Airline of the Year, and customers generally give it higher marks than most competing U.S. carriers.

It has an ambitious growth strategy, which executives laid out to investors and analysts in March.

Alaska plans to grow an average of 4% to 8% per year through 2025, and is buying 100 new 737-Max planes to grow its mainline fleet to nearly 400 all-Boeing planes. At Horizon, the venerable DHC Q-400 turboprops will be phased out next year in favor of Embraer E-175 jets, which provide a quiet, comfortable ride.

To help address the pilot shortage, Alaska is partnering with Hillsboro Aero Academy to develop the Ascend Pilot Academy. Announced last month, it will be based at the Hillsboro, Oregon, airport. Cadet pilots will be eligible for low-interest financial aid, a $25,000 stipend to cover the cost of a commercial pilot license, mentorship and guidance from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air pilots, and a conditional job offer at Horizon Air. After reaching the required flight hours and other criteria, pilots can earn a job flying with Alaska Airlines, where captains can earn more than $340,000 per year, according to the airline.

The company also claims it will provide transparent accountability on key environmental, social and governance parameters. Goals include being the most fuel-efficient U.S. airline and reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Alaska has linked a portion of its annual performance-based pay plan for all employees to the carbon intensity of the operation, and a portion of executives’ compensation to achieving stronger representation in leadership of Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Alaska Air Group and its two airlines are important companies in our region. We hope its turbulence will soon be past.