A little more than an hour before midnight March 22, Alaska’s Mount Redoubt pumped a plume of ash thousands of feet into the air 110 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Perhaps the largest immediate reaction to the remwote volcano’s reawakening after 20 years of slumber came not in Alaska but in a low white building just south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, 1,400 miles to the southeast.
There in Alaska Airlines’ Operations Center, the staff put into action a disaster plan weeks in the making.
The people staffing the operations center, the nerve center of the nation’s ninth largest airline, didn’t know it then, but the mountain’s eruption marked the beginning of two weeks of unpredictable, intermittent airline hell that would stress the airline’s resources and ingenuity mightily.
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The News Tribune recently talked with Alaska workers about how they faced the extraordinarily challenging issue.
When the cluster of 20 eruptions ended in early April, the airline had been forced to cancel 295 flights, to disrupt or delay the flights of 20,000 passengers and move mountains of baggage and cargo that accumulated at the airline’s hubs at Sea-Tac and Anchorage when flights were interrupted.
The airline’s reservations centers worked overtime rebooking passengers from canceled flights only to have to change them again as the volcano erupted once more.
Airlines handle disruptions almost every day – ranging from thunderstorms and fog that shut down airports nationwide to hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico that paralyze Miami and snowstorms that put Chicago’s O’Hare Airport into gridlock. So they’re familiar with rescheduling flights and rebooking delayed passengers, but the Redoubt experience was different and more taxing in several ways, Alaska executives said.
“With the usual problems, the issue is done in a few hours or a day,” said Anna Gordon, Alaska’s system operations control director. “With Mount Redoubt, the problem continued for two weeks, and the eruptions were unpredictable.”
The ash plumes emitted by the 10,000-foot-tall mountain weren’t just unpleasant weather to be avoided, but potentially deadly clouds that could shut down engines, clog up external instruments and craze windshields with their abrasive grit, said Bob Graves, a pilot and Alaska’s director of operations. Beyond the paramount safety issue, the Redoubt disruptions were particularly concerning on a day-to-day practical living level. Because Alaska is unusually dependent on air service not only to move passengers from place to place, but to provide vital food, prescription drugs and machinery parts to remote communities, keeping planes in the air was more than just a matter of convenience.
“Of the 19 communities we serve in Alaska from Anchorage, only three are accessible by road,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska’s vice president of cargo operations.
During the two weeks of disrupted air travel, some communities such as Barrow in the far north got perilously low on food, but never completely ran out.
So Alaska’s operations people, the people who put together pieces of the complex puzzle, aircraft availability, fuel, pilot and flight attendant schedules, ramp and counter personnel shift, and flight connections that make up a schedule, carefully crafted a plan. “We sat at a table and went through a dozen different scenarios and asked ourselves what we do if this would happen, or that or this,’ said Gordon.
In one big way, Alaska was fortunate. In that last week of March and early April, many of those traveling on Alaska flights were Alaskans, not the summer tourist crowd less used to the rigors of living and traveling in the 49th state.
“Alaska residents are a hardy group accustomed to improvising and making-do when Mother Nature throws a fit,” said Alaska vice president of customer service Jeff Butler. They showed extraordinary patience and inventiveness in the face of difficult circumstances, he said.
But in yet another way, the timing was bad.
“It was spring break,” said Ben Minicucci, Alaska’s executive vice president of operations. That meant thousands of Alaskans and their families had fled the last throes of Alaska’s winter for warm climes in Mexico, Southern California, Arizona and Hawaii. As Alaska’s biggest airline, the SeaTac-based Alaska Airlines was carrying the lion’s share of sun seekers.
When word of the volcano’s eruption reached the Alaska operations center moments after it happened, the dispatchers there and executives called in for the crisis were faced with some immediate decisions and some slightly longer range questions.
With most airlines, a late-night situation would find most of its planes safely resting on the ground, but Alaska is different. Because of its remoteness and distance from Alaska Airlines’ main hub airport in Seattle – Anchorage is about the same distance from Seattle as Minneapolis is from the Emerald City – planes fly through the night connecting Alaska with Sea-Tac in order to connect with the last group of flights from cities in the lower 48 and to catch that first morning wave of planes leaving Sea-Tac for places such as Chicago, New York, Mexico and California.
The night of the eruption found half a dozen planes in the air between Alaska and Washington state. Dispatchers in the large operations center room filled with desks and computer consoles had to decide quickly whether it was prudent for them to continue on to Alaska or to have them reverse course and return to Seattle.
Because it was at night, visual observation of the ash plume was impossible, but based on winds and the distance of the volcano from the flight path between the two cities and a cautious estimate of the plume’s progress, Alaska allowed some flights to finish their trips to Alaska’s largest city. Others, more distant from Anchorage, were ordered to return to Seattle.
Once those planes had landed and discharged their passengers, the question arose whether to keep them on the ground in Anchorage overnight and possibly have them trapped at the airport by ash, or to fly them on to Fairbanks, 260 miles farther north, to keep them out of harm’s way. Many of those aircraft flew onto the relative safety of Fairbanks. Once those immediate decisions were made, the question of March 23’s schedule loomed. By 4:30 a.m., the operations group that includes flight safety people, schedulers, pilots, public relations representatives and others, decided to cancel 19 flights the next morning, all of them to, from and within Alaska. That decision set into motion a process that would become almost routine over the next two weeks, getting the word out to passengers, crew members and the public. That involved e-mails, phone calls, Web postings and Twitter messages to keep fliers informed, Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.
Distant airports needed to be kept up-to-date so that counter personnel could tell passengers coming from cities as distant on the Alaska’s network as Miami and Cancun that their continuing flights to Anchorage and other Alaska destinations were canceled.
Butler said the airline decided to isolate the Alaska flights from Sea-Tac in one location, the end of the D Concourse, to make it easier to communicate personally with passengers waiting to see whether their flights would be rescheduled or canceled.
The airport’s public address system proved to be inferior to bullhorns that the airline used to make announcements to passengers gathered in that area, Butler said.
Meanwhile, members of the airline’s communications staff joined the operations team in the central control room at the Operations Center to send out Twitter updates and news releases on the status of the flights.
Baggage presented extraordinary issues. Initially the airline sent all bags destined for canceled flights to the baggage carousels on the ground floor at Sea-Tac. But Alaska found that many passengers didn’t collect those bags because they were rushing to secure airport hotel space while it was available.
Alaska in the first day ended up with 2,000 bags that went unclaimed. There wasn’t adequate space to store those bags, and they couldn’t be easily rechecked because they’d have to be rescreened for security violations.
The airline then changed its policy, retaining and storing the bags headed to Alaska behind security. That too presented problems because some travelers had packed vital prescriptions or documents in those bags that were now unreachable behind the security barrier. As the number of flights canceled cascaded, it became virtually impossible to search through the mountains of bags for specific suitcases, let alone find a place to store them. In the end, Alaska used “igloo” metal freight containers to store the bags and keep them out of the weather.
Did the airline learn from the experience? “I think the most important thing was that we all learned to trust each other — that the job would get done,” Gordon said.
“Our employees rallied to make it happen, and our customers were extraordinarily understanding and flexible. We don’t look forward to having to do this again, but we know now we’ll all be able to cope,” Minicucci said.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663