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Tips for navigating air travel after the grounding of 737 Max 9 planes snarls Alaska Airlines flights

6 min read
Tips for navigating air travel after the grounding of 737 Max 9 planes snarls Alaska Airlines flights

If there was a “Bravery in Aviation” award, I would nominate the crew of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282. After a door plug blew off the plane at 16,000 feet on Jan. 5, the rapid depressurization led to an emergency descent, masks falling from the ceiling and a real struggle to secure the cabin and the souls on board.

Scenarios like this are exceedingly rare — and it’s what the flight crews train for.

Back on the ground in Portland, everyone started asking important questions: “How did this happen?” “Whose fault was this?”

These are crucial questions that are central to ongoing investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Boeing and its subcontractor Spirit Aerosystems and, of course, Alaska Airlines.

But up in the air, everything was riding on the rapid and measured response of the Alaska Airlines crew to bring the Boeing 737 Max 9 safely back to earth. Mission accomplished.

The subsequent grounding of the Max 9 737 is sending shock waves through the airline schedules around the U.S. It’s toughest for Alaska Airlines and United, the only two U.S. airlines that operate the Max 9s.

Just as the Alaska Airlines crew was responsible for the safe landing of Flight 1282, the airline also is responsible for getting travelers back home after all the Max 9 flights were canceled. The Max 9 planes make up 20% of Alaska Air’s fleet.

Additionally, Alaska Air now must juggle its remaining fleet to accommodate travelers on their way to the airport right now. Or, those who are leaving tomorrow … or next week.

Alaska Air’s customer service lines are ringing off the hook. Travelers report wait times of several hours. For its part, Alaska Air is encouraging people to change their flights online through the airline’s app or on the website at alaskaair.com.

But in many cases there simply aren’t any good options. That means travelers need to get on the phone and sort things out. But that doesn’t always work, either.

Carol Sturgulewski and her husband were visiting family over the holidays in Mexico.

Before flying out of Guadalajara, she received an email saying her flight had been canceled — but that Alaska Air was doing everything they could to rebook her.

Shortly thereafter, she received another email saying they could not find a flight.

“I’m a loyal Alaska Airlines customer,” said Sturgulewski. “I tried to call the toll-free number from Mexico, but it didn’t work. And the local Mexico number is only reachable on a landline.”

Sturgulewski was flummoxed. “Who has a landline in 2024?” she asked.

Her husband, Roe Sturgulewski, spent four hours trying to find a flight from Guadalajara. They spent an extra two days there and flew to Seattle on Volaris Airlines.

Once in Seattle, they tried unsuccessfully to get a flight back to Anchorage while they were at the airport. They finally booked an Alaska Airlines flight north to Anchorage, but it got canceled.

“We’re lucky,” said Carol. “We’re retired, and we have family to stay with in Seattle. I cannot imagine trying to navigate this with three small children in tow.”

[Is it safe to hold your baby on a flight? Boeing blowout stokes fears.]

Although there have not been too many cancellations in and out of Anchorage for Alaska Airlines, each Max 9 has more than 150 passengers who are going all different places after connecting in Seattle or Portland. So there are thousands of travelers trying to make new plans, even though Alaska Airlines is instantly 20% smaller.

Many of the flights to Hawaii are on the Max 9s. “Piper” left a comment on Facebook that she and her family were stuck an extra five days in Hawaii. “The delay was frustrating, but safety first … We had epic family time with our family in Honolulu. Priceless moments and wonderful funny memories … Alaska Airlines has been helpful and I will fly with them in the future.”

“Regina” and her husband were in Anchorage visiting family. The day before returning home, their flight got canceled. They received new flights, but it included an overnight in Seattle. So she called and settled in for a six-hour wait on hold.

“Then I want back to the app and realized I could reschedule for the next day,” she wrote. “We’re grateful for flexibility and we did not need to get hotel accommodations or meals.”

Hotels and meals and other incidentals can add up quickly. Several travelers mentioned that Alaska Air representatives advised them to keep receipts for expenses and forward them to customer care for reimbursement.

Tim Thompson, a spokesperson for Alaska Airlines, confirmed this. “Keep the receipts for food and accommodations,” wrote Thompson. Travelers can submit these to Alaska Airlines, with your confirmation code, via email: [email protected].

I would recommend that, in addition to the receipts, you provide a cover letter to explain when you were delayed.

While airlines rebook passengers on other carriers all the time, Thompson said he wasn’t sure Alaska Air would reimburse travelers if they purchased air tickets (like the Sturgulewskis did between Guadalajara and Seattle).

If it’s important to contact Alaska Air’s reservations staff, some options could save time:

1. Use the call-back function if you’re on hold with customer service. Every time I’ve used this option, I’ve gotten a call back sooner than initially promised.

2. Call the dedicated rebooking number if you have an existing reservation. This is not a general reservation number: 877-862-4093.

3. Use your cellphone to text an Alaska Airlines representative. Text 82008. Have your confirmation number and your mileage number handy.

The cancellations of Alaska’s Max 9 flights are a good reason to carry travel insurance. Travel insurance covers trip cancellation, as well as medical emergencies for you or a family member. Big insurance providers include Allianz and BHTP. There are several online comparison tools for travel insurance: insuremytrip.com and squaremouth.com

Also, most credit cards have some travel insurance packages built in, including the Alaska Airlines Visa card from Bank of America. For example, when I put a dent in my rental car in Seattle, the insurance from my Alaska Air Visa took care of everything.

[Alaska Airlines passengers sue Boeing over 737 MAX 9 blowout]

Another valuable resource in situations like this is a professional travel agent. I visited an agent earlier this week, and they were spending lots of time rebooking travelers on other flights. An agent can quickly pull up other flights and rebook you. There’s a fee, though. A brick-and-mortar agent like Alaska Travel Source will charge $40 for a domestic air ticket. Most agents also will assist you with mileage or award reservations.

Certainly, the Alaska Airlines crew of Flight 1282 is an inspiration for “grace under fire.” Going forward, everyone at the airline will be doing more to ensure that safety is a top priority. But the customer service crew will be doing some heavy lifting to re-accommodate thousands of travelers in the coming days and weeks. Whether you meet them at the airport or on the phone, be kind.

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