Alaska Air flights, baggage delayed

Subcontractors in Seattle affect Juneau riders

Posted: Thursday, June 02, 2005

Flights into Juneau appear to be delayed more often since Alaska Airlines laid off nearly 500 employees and started training contracted workers, passengers and union officials said.

The airline replaced 472 ramp employees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with workers from Menzies Aviation last month to try to cut expenses amid high fuel costs and tough competition.

A union president representing the ramp workers - employees who handle luggage and guide aircraft on the tarmac - said delays and other problems are occurring because the hired crew is overwhelmed.

"Without a doubt, there's a learning curve," said Bobby DePace, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

"Obviously, a transition like that is never easy," said Alaska spokeswoman Caroline Boren. Some delays and baggage mishandling in the past were due to training the new workers.

But flight schedules and luggage pickups should be going back to normal, Boren said. On average, passengers wait 19 minutes for luggage, she said.

At press time Wednesday, Alaska Airlines had eight flights either arriving or departing Juneau on Wednesday delayed beyond 20 minutes, including a two-hour late start for one morning flight.

Boren said she was not aware of the specific reasons for the delays, but they could involve other reasons besides ramp problems in Seattle, such as weather conditions and maintenance failures.

Passenger Linda Braun flew into Juneau on Wednesday from Boston to visit her daughter and discovered one of her bags was missing. Her connecting flight flew into Seattle an hour early but arrived in Juneau 35 minutes late. Passengers heard the reason for the delay was mechanical.

"We were really confused," she said. From Braun's perspective the flight appeared overbooked, possibly short-staffed, and the Seattle terminal was unusually crowded.

DePace said that farming out ramp workers is not uncommon for airlines docking at distant airports, but it is highly unusual for an airline to cut its force at its own hub.

What happens is a "domino effect," in which time is lost while reloading planes with luggage to get the proper weight distribution, causing all Alaska Airline flights coming through Seattle to be delayed, he said.

"I've heard some horror stories," said Juneau resident Don Birdseye, who was heading to Seattle on Wednesday to connect to Boston for a family wedding.

On the day of the layoff, a man visiting Juneau and returning to his home near Seattle waited more than two hours to pick up his luggage at SEATAC.

"Better late than never," passenger Roger Jack said.

Meanwhile, calling the layoffs illegal, the workers' union will try to win their jobs back with legal action. Today, the two parties will meet in a Seattle federal court to begin hearings.

The nation's ninth-largest airline has closed two ticket offices in Juneau and several others along the West Coast.

Negotiations with its union wrapped up last week with captains and first officers taking a 20 percent pay cut and five-year contracts instead of three years.

Alaska's parent, Seattle-based Alaska Air Group., lost $80.5 million in the first quarter of 2005 and is working to cut $340 million in costs by the end of the year, according to The Associated Press.

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