Habberstad said Alaska Airlines had to park 66-percent of its fleet at the beginning of the pandemic. “We will be a smaller airline,” he told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce, “and we’ll be a smaller airline for a while, until demand returns to where it needs to be to bring the entire fleet back.” (Flickr photo/Colin Brown)

Alaska Airlines is slowly restoring capacity over most of its routes, but it will remain a smaller airline than it was in 2019 — at least for a while.

The company’s director of community marketing in the state spoke recently (12-2-20) as part of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Speaker Series.

The nation’s airlines were among the hardest-hit industries by the pandemic. A huge infusion of government relief funding softened the landing, but most people probably never grasped the scale of the crash.

Alaska Airlines was the nation’s fifth largest airline in 2019. A year later, Scott Habberstad said things had been scaled back dramatically.

Habberstad – We had to park 66-percent of our fleet, or about 156 airplanes. Finding long-term parking for that many aircraft is much more difficult than one might imagine. We did it, but I’ve got to give it up — the maintenance needs to bring these planes back up and online safely was an order of an extensive magnitude. Our maintenance team did an amazing job putting our planes away and parking them. Today, we’ve brought back many of those aircraft, but not all. We will be a smaller airline, and we’ll be a smaller airline for a while, until demand returns to where it needs to be to bring the entire fleet back.

At bottom, Habberstad said Alaska’s daily passenger traffic dropped from a typical 140,000 passengers a day, to 5,000 — at a loss of about $5 million a day. Since then, the carrier has been working to “right size” its business, and to position itself to rebuild when traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, if it ever does.

Habberstad’s presentation was about ten minutes long; most of his time was spent answering questions from the audience on Zoom.

One Sitkan said that she was afraid to fly on the Boeing 737-Max after a pair of fatal crashes in 2018 grounded the plane until only recently. Habberstad, a pilot himself, tried to reassure her.

Habberstad – The Max has made news recently because the FAA has opened it up to where it’s able to fly now. It’s been off the radar for about the last two years. The Max is part of our fleet, we are not operating them yet, but we will eventually operate them. Personally, as a pilot, I believe it’s going to be one of the safest airplanes in the world now because of all the heightened scrutiny around it. I would not have a concern hopping on it, but I understand her fear. We’ve got a strong communications plan going out, and you’ll be able to see what flights are the 737-Max and which ones aren’t. And if you want to take another flight or another airplane — the 800, the 700, the 900 — that opportunity will be available to you. And the likelihood that the Max goes into Sitka anytime soon is very small. The benefit of the Max is that it’s got long legs, as we like to say: It travels long distances really well and it’s really fuel efficient. So you’ll see it more on our transcon flights than you’d see it through Southeast and our milk runs.

Another resident questioned Alaska’s fare structure. She asked why airfares between Sitka and Seattle were six times more than between Seattle and San Diego. Although Habberstad disputed that fares were six times greater out of Sitka, he said that lower fares elsewhere were a function of the number of seats for sale. He also said that Sitka was regularly included in the airline’s discount offers.

“It is not our goal to gouge folks, because it’s not in our best interest,” said Habberstad. “The fares that we’re talking about coming up for the summer right now are good for summer, and I would encourage our lodges, our six-pac and other tour operators to start tracking those and sending those messages out to their guests.”

Habberstad said that Alaska would continue to block middle seats, require face coverings for all passengers, and deep clean aircraft between flights for the indefinite future. He said there was a direct correlation between a spike in coronavirus cases in a region, and a decrease in bookings.

He said the airline — like many businesses — was planning to make the best of an uncertain future.

“You know covid’s going to be a part of our summer, there’s no question in my mind” he said. “It won’t be as big a part of it as it was last summer, but things like charter fishing, things like excursion opportunities in Sitka and the rest of Southeast Alaska — all of Alaska I guess — allows that social distancing opportunity. And there is no doubt in my mind that this summer will be a much better visitor summer than last summer.”

Habberstad said that there was pent-up demand for summer tourism in the state, and that Alaska Airlines was “well-poised to take advantage of that.”