Lessons from Alaska Air's meltdown


If I were grading Alaska Airlines on how it handled a digital meltdown that disrupted travel for thousands in October, I'd give the airline a D for communication and a B+ for compensation.

When its computer system was brought down by two severed fiber-optic cables, the airline suffered a communications breakdown with its own staff that drew almost as much flak as the delays and cancellations that affected nearly 8,000.


When it came to compensating passengers for the disruptions, however, it smartly decided to let customer goodwill trump its standard policies. Hard to believe, but there are no U.S. laws requiring airlines to do anything other than offer refunds for canceled flights or rebooking on the next available flight. 

As I explain in this week's Travel Wise column for The Seattle Times, written into some Contracts of Carriage, legal documents posted on U.S. airlines' websites, is a promise to provide a hotel room if a flight is canceled for a mechanical problem or other routine reason. But when problems are due to weather, riots, strikes or any unforeseen event the airlines consider out of their control, they're off the hook.

Alaska bent its rules.

"In the case of a traveler needing to get where they were going that day, we booked them on another airline," Lindsey said. "If a traveler had to overnight to catch a flight the next day, we provided accommodations and meals. If a traveler had a long day at the airport, we provided a free meal." Others got vouchers fordiscounts on future travel.

One couple I talked with first received a $100 voucher, but Alaska increased it to $300 after they sent a letter outlining complaints about rude treatment and lost luggage.

Situations such as this are frustrating, but the approaching holiday-travel season makes delays and cancellations more likely. 

Some strategies for minimizing the hassles:

• Airlines hardly ever shell out cash compensation, except as a refund for a canceled flight or for involuntary bumping. Travel insurance is best for recovering monetary losses (for prepaid hotels or tours, for example).

• If you've got a smartphone, use it. Call a reservations agent at the same time you're standing in line to rebook. Check on what other airlines fly the same route. Having that information can save time and make it easier for an agent to rebook you. Check Twitter and Facebook for updates and what other passengers are saying.

• Take a carry-on bag with essentials, such as medication, in case of cancellations of missed connections. • Be patient. "Being nice" advises the consumer organization Flyersrights.org, "will get you better treatment."

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