Story last updated at 12/24/2008 - 10:51 am
The weeklong snowstorm that has grounded airline travel in the Northwest worsened Sunday, forcing Alaska Airlines to suspend about 75 percent of its flights out of Seattle and Portland, Ore., airline officials reported.
About 125 flights were canceled over the weekend, leaving thousands of holiday travelers stranded and sleeping inside airports. With three days worth of passengers hoping to board today, an Alaska Airline spokesman said the new challenge will be finding enough space for everyone. Some passengers have been stranded since Saturday morning.
"Most of our flights were fully booked," airlines spokesman Paul McElroy said. "Typically, we do try to add extra flights where possible to help the backlog."
The number of flights to be added, if any, has yet to be announced.
"We regret the impact these cancellations are having on our customers' holiday travel plans," said Ben Minicucci, Alaska Airlines chief operating officer. "These decisions are guided by our commitment to safety, and we are making every effort to re-accommodate passengers whose flight schedules have been disrupted."
Airline officials are hopeful travel will commence today, though Mother Nature may have different plans in store. Seattle and Portland have both experienced freezing rain and as much as a foot of snow in some areas since Thursday. Iced-over runways and low visibility also are keeping planes grounded.
"We can't predict how things are going to go with the storm," McElroy said.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reported more than 9,000 stranded passengers, many of which have set up camp in the airport's hallways and waiting areas because most Seattle hotels were already filled. McElroy said he was unsure how many total passengers have been stranded since the first flight cancellation Saturday morning.
Mary Ellen Courtney, 59, of Washington, was one of the lucky few to find an available hotel room in Seattle. Courtney was on her way to visit her daughter and son-in-law, Courtney and Gene Nelson, in Juneau when her Sunday flight was canceled. She described the airport as a refugee camp.
"It's just a mess, ... there's luggage everywhere," Courtney said from a hotel room she was sharing with her husband, Wayne Fitzgerald, and another stranded traveler she'd met hours earlier. "We've traveled a lot and we've never had (travel plans) just completely break down like this."
Some people waited more than four hours to get back their luggage, Courtney said, adding that she got tired of waiting and is hopeful her bags, and the Christmas presents in them, arrive in Juneau when she does. With weather permitting, Courtney hopes to catch another flight Tuesday.
Two Alaska-bound flights did manage to escape the Seattle airport early Sunday during a break in the weather; one bound for Anchorage and another for Juneau. Alberta Jones, a longtime Juneau resident spending a year living in Washington, D.C., was one of the lucky few Sunday to make it out. Jones will be visiting the same family members as Courtney, but the two women are not directly related.
"Living here for so many years, we expect bad weather and we ... just go with the flow," she said. "You take that gamble living in Southeast Alaska."
Jones' stepdaughter's Tuesday flight from San Francisco to Juneau, with a scheduled layover in Seattle, has been postponed until Christmas Eve so the congestion of people in Seattle can be dealt with first.
Both Jones and Courtney said the overall mood at the Seattle airport was better than expected considering the large number of weary travelers and usual holiday angst.
"It didn't seem too extreme, and for the most part people had a pretty good attitude about (the cancellations)," Jones said, adding that her family would "make the best of the time we have together."
The National Weather Service projects sunny weather in Juneau today and about a 30 percent chance of snow Tuesday. Weather in Seattle is expected to warm up by early afternoon today and less than an inch of snowfall is expected.
An airline spokesman said passengers may reschedule for another flight without penalty, or travelers can apply for a full refund of the unused portion of their ticket. Holiday travelers can check flight status by calling Alaska Airlines' reservation center at 1-800-252-7522 or by visiting www.alaskaair.com.