Holiday season takes flight

Airlines booked up as Christmas approaches

Posted: Friday, December 23, 2005

If you haven’t purchased airline tickets Outside by now, you can expect to spend the Christmas holidays right here in Alaska, say travel agents scrambling to arrange last-minute flights for their customers.

“Right now, you couldn’t get out if you tried,” said Dawn McKibbon, a travel agent for 24 years and part owner of Travel Experts in Soldotna. “There’s really nothing available until around Jan. 6, and that’s just to Seattle.”

It should come as no surprise that many Alaskans are flying south to be with family and friends for the holidays. It’s either there or they’re escaping to the sun on the sandy beaches of Hawaii and Mexico. Flights are packed.

Many of McKibbon’s customers secured seats by purchasing tickets well in advance. Those who didn’t are paying through the nose — if they can find seats at all.

“Stragglers are paying $1,000 a ticket or they don’t go,” she said.

Holiday season airline promotions, such as one giving breaks for travel completed by Jan. 8, are offering only limited seats and few of those are left, said Elaine Cowans, manager of Easy Travel in Kenai.

Smart shoppers “didn’t wait for the big sales,” she said.

Most of her customers appeared to be booking flights to old family homes for the holidays, including one person for whom home meant Skopje, Macedonia, Cowans said. As far as reasons for traveling went, however, the sunny beaches of Hawaii were a very close second, she noted.

It was a similar situation at One Stop Travel in Soldotna.

“I’d say we have more people heading home for the holidays this year. Not so much Hawaii or Mexico as there has been in other years,” said Pam Spindler, an eight-year employee.

All the travel agents said it was getting harder and harder to find seats as the holidays approached.

So if planes to destinations Outside are so full, why aren’t airlines adding flights to their schedules? Airlines simply don’t have the aircraft available, McKibbon offered.

“I couldn’t charter a plane, even for a group of 120 people who wanted to go Outside together,” she said.

Efforts to garner comment from Alaska Airlines public relations representatives were unsuccessful.

Not everyone is trying to get out during the holidays. College students coming home to Alaska make up much of the in-bound “home-for-the-holidays” traffic, and commuter airlines are seeing the seasonal jump in business.

“We move a lot of college kids back and forth, and the holiday move is happening,” said Jason Nunn, Anchorage and Kenai station manager for Grant Aviation. “Kids are going both ways, but mostly coming home.”

Grant, which serves communities in Southwest Alaska from Kenai and Anchorage, rewards students with fare reductions based on grades. Those sporting 4.0 grade point averages see their fares slashed 25 percent.

It’s been “another great Christmas season” at Era Aviation, said company president and CEO Paul Landis.

“We see an overall increase in traffic — people moving in all directions,” he said. “This is the time of year when we see a nice little bump in traffic.”

He credited Era’s participation in Alaska Airlines’ permanent fund dividend ticket specials and the growing popularity of Web bookings.

The Kenai airport has seen a typical busy holiday seasons, said Airport Manager Becky Cronkhite.

“I see a lot of local people traveling or picking up their students or friends and family members,” she said. “The weather has been good, so there haven’t been a lot of delays. The (commuter) airlines appear full, but not overbooked.”

Travelers heading out should come to the airport earlier than usual, Cronkhite recommended. Expect crowded parking lots and longer lines at the check-in counters, she said.

Airport maintenance crews have been hard at work during the recent wet weather addressing icy runways. Slick conditions are hazardous for cars on roads, but they can slow down. A landing aircraft is pretty much compelled to maintain high speed, making ice a bigger concern, Cronkhite said.

Her crews go to work the minute it starts snowing and remain ready with de-icing equipment when temperatures reach near freezing or below, she said.

“We keep the runways open 24-7,” she said.

The Kenai airport terminal will open only part of the day on Christmas, she said. Grant Aviation has no scheduled flights. Era Airlines has two in the morning and two in the evening. Between those periods, the doors will be closed, she said.

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