Alaska Airlines bag-handler shortage creates holiday havoc

As many as 6,000 travelers were affected, with about 40 arriving airplanes delayed at Sea-Tac Airport.

By Lewis Kamb / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — An unexpected shortage of Alaska Airlines baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport starting Friday caused luggage problems, flight delays and other stress for thousands of customers during one of the busiest travel times of the year, according to statements from the airline and airport.

Meantime, holiday travelers have taken to social media to roast the airline, complaining about hourslong waits on the tarmac, missed connections, missing bags and other frustrations.

A statement posted on Alaska’s website apologized to “our guests who endured considerable inconvenience and understandable frustration at Sea-Tac Airport over the past two days.”

“Put simply: a severe staffing shortage during a very heavy travel period, as well as difficult weather conditions, unleashed a cascade of problems for us, and — unfairly — for our guests,” Alaska’s statement said. “A large number of workers who support our baggage operation had called out sick.”

An Alaska spokesman said in an email late Saturday that as many as 6,000 travelers have been affected, with about 40 arriving airplanes delayed from getting to gates by one to three hours.

“Once the initial problems started, it all quickly snowballed,” spokesman Ray Lane said in the email. “Out on the tarmac, we didn’t have enough ramp agents to move the bags on and off the planes. That meant we had to use fewer gates because some were not staffed correctly. At least 1,500 bags were left behind as flights left Sea-Tac for their destinations — they never got loaded.”

Lane added the staff shortage is not part of an organized labor dispute.

“The amount of call-outs is twice what we’d normally see,” his email said. “This was not a coordinated work action. A big group of workers was just not feeling well. The dramatic number of call-outs caught us off guard and, frankly, we weren’t well prepared to handle it.”

Sea-Tac Airport spokesman Perry Cooper said Saturday the problems were confined to Alaska.

“It was really about the one airline,” Cooper said. “Operations weren’t affected for the rest of the airport or any of the other airlines.”

Representatives for McGee Air Services, the Alaska Airlines subsidiary that handles the airline’s baggage-handlers contract, and the Machinists union that represents those employees, could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Alaska’s statement on its website provided instructions for air travelers whose checked bags didn’t arrive at their destinations, offering to reimburse them for “reasonable and necessary expenses.” The statement added the carrier had called in management employees from across the company “to assist with the baggage backup and recovery.”

On Monday, the airline said: “As of Sunday afternoon, all bags left behind at Sea-Tac Airport have been sent to their intended destinations. Our teams worked quickly to make sure that happened, understanding how problematic and frustrating it has been for our guests not to have their belongings — especially during holiday travel. It remains a very busy time at Sea-Tac, with nearly all flights flying full. There will be lines and issues that pop up. We are determined to do our best in each case to help our guests.”

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