Alaska Airlines shows its holiday spirit

Alaska Airlines shows its holiday spirit

It is our first vacation in two years, and our first road trip vacation.  Our plan – fly into Las Vegas on the red eye to get an early start, maximize the days.  I had been in touch with one of my high school buddies, Bill, whom I have not seen in twenty years.  He is going to pick us up at our hotel and take us on a hike in a wilderness area near Vegas – a perfect start to our desert Southwest vacation.  The anticipation for this trip was palpable – not only had we not had a vacation together in two years, Michelle had spent the last year busting her ass on a big project for an important client.  This trip was our reward in so many ways.

The first leg of the trip was a direct, non-stop flight from Anchorage to Portland.  We had not been able to secure First Class seating for this leg – the longest leg of the trip to Vegas – but we had for the second leg.  I earned a MVP upgrade and we paid for an upgrade for Michelle’s seat.

I have enjoyed the slightly-elevated level of privilege of being a MVP member ever since flying to Africa last year to do some photo work for Tony Robbins during one of his Platinum Partner outings.  Michelle and I were both Club 49 members, so that gave us some additional perks, like free checked bags and the opportunity to purchase flex fares at reduced rates.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to go through security and have a couple of drinks before going to the gate.  When we arrived at the gate, we learned that our flight was going through Seattle on the way to Portland.  “That’s not right,” I said to Michelle, “this is supposed to be a direct, non-stop flight to Portland.”  Well, I wasn’t wrong, it was supposed to be a direct, non-stop flight.  What had changed?  Alaska Airlines had determined that the current aircraft crew would exceed its authorized time in air if it went all the way to Portland.  The solution?  Divert to Seattle and pick up a new crew there.  No, not contact a standby crew in Anchorage (of which there were plenty), divert to Seattle and pick up a new crew there.  While it was mildly inconvenient – I would not have uninterrupted sleep all the way to Portland – it wouldn’t mess with our connection.  We made sure to arrange a connection that would give us enough leeway in the layover if there were problems on the first leg of the trip. The gate attendant stated that the estimated arrival time in Portland would be 6:00 a.m., giving us a full hour to make our connection to Las Vegas.

We arrived in Portland right at 5:00 a.m. local time.  The pilot announced we would be going to the gate, disembarking some passengers, and working to swap crews.  The disembarking passengers were added to the flight when the Seattle leg was included, allowing the airline to get these passengers to their destination – an ever-important opportunity during holiday travel.  It was, after all, Christmas Eve.

Everything happened as planned – we pulled quickly up to the gate, the disembarking passengers lined up and were quickly off.  The crews silently made their switch, and then, we waited.  Silence.  After a while, a flight attendant announced that additional passengers would be disembarking; the only way to make their connecting flights was to get them off and adjust their travel.  The attendant called off about twenty names, and told those people to grab their things and head toward the exit.  I dozed for a little bit during this process, woke briefly to hear that a fuel truck was on its way, would refuel us, and we’d be on our way.

I woke up an hour later expecting to look out and see clouds below.  Instead, I saw the asphalt of the tarmac, right where we had been an hour before at the gate.    Not really sure of how much time had elapsed, I turned on my phone to see – it was now 6:45 a.m.  Our connecting flight in Portland that would take us to Vegas was leaving in 15 minutes.  I depressed the attendant call button.  A flight attendant came to our aisle, and I started with, “Our connecting flight to Vegas is leaving Portland in 15 minutes; what’s going on?”  What followed was a flow of flimsy apologies, an assurance that reservation staff were aware of many passengers with connecting flights and that it was being dealt with.  I asked, why were other passengers disembarked so they could make flights but Michelle and I were still on the plane, and no one had called our names?  The flight attendant again apologized and said that everything was being done that could be.  No answer, though, as to why we were still there and when we were leaving.  Shortly thereafter there was an admonishment over the speakers reminding us to stay in our seats with the seatbelts secured; we were, after all, on an “active taxiway.”  Really?  We were still at the gate; the only difference was the ramp was no longer attached.

We ultimately took off at 7:15, a full two hours and fifteen minutes after landing.  During take off, the ensuing half-hour flight, and on landing, neither the crew nor the pilot said anything indicating that anything out of the ordinary had happened.  The usual scripts were followed all the way through to Portland, right up until we pulled up to the gate.  Then, finally, an apology was issued for the delay, but still no explanation.  We deplaned and proceeded immediately to the gate customer service counter.

We had three concerns: we wanted the next flight, we wanted our First Class seats, and we wanted some sort of compensation and acknowledgement for the screw up.  When we finally had the chance to speak to someone (there were only three people at the counter, and only two of them were handling the changed travel needs of passengers), we wanted to make sure we were on the next flight.  He confirmed that we would be on that flight – five hours later – but we were lucky; the couple next to us was only on standby for that flight, and could only be guaranteed a spot on the 8 pm flight to Vegas.  I also mentioned that we originally had First Class seats for the Las Vegas leg of the flight.  The man on the other side of the counter noted, “Oh, but that was just an MVP upgrade.”  Actually, I responded, “we paid for an upgrade.”  His attitude took me more seriously once he realized that cash had been exchanged (apparently MVP status really means “Meaningless Vile People”). Ultimately, he told us not only were there no First Class seats available for the next flight at 1:05 p.m., there were none for any of the return legs on our trip, either.  He made it clear that all he could do was get us set up for the next flight available; if we wanted some sort of satisfaction for the serious inconvenience – ruining the first whole day of a long-awaited vacation – we would have to call the national customer service number. He helpfully provided us the toll-free number to call.

Once we were speaking to a real person on the phone, they asked Michelle if we were still in travel status.  Yes, Michelle responded.  Well, Alaska Airlines explained, they could not process a complaint ticket until our travel was completed.  What did that mean?, Michelle asked.  Did that mean once we were in Vegas or once the entire trip was done, when we were back home in Anchorage in almost three weeks.  The latter, of course, was the response from customer service.  “That’s not acceptable,” Michelle responded.  They relented and said that they would process a complaint and get back to us on December 26 (I will update this blog if they do respond).

So we hung up and started thinking about our options of how we would spend five hours of unanticipated layover in Portland.  Then we remembered – they had an Alaska Airlines Board Room.  Michelle suggested that perhaps we could spend time there – didn’t my MVP status or our Club 49 status count for something?  Apparently not, I learned after doing a little research on the Alaska Airlines website.  You had to buy into the privilege, and a day pass was $45 per person.  Didn’t Alaska Airlines at least owe us that for sticking us in the airport for five hours?  We called the customer service number again to inquire; they did not have the authority to issue any compensation while we were in travel status, we would have to speak to local customer service personnel.

We returned to the customer service counter we had dealt with before to find it completely abandoned.  Fortunately, we ran into someone from Operations, who also explained that they would not have the authority to issue a complimentary pass to the Board Room either.  (She did offer food vouchers – something the customer service counter had not offered – but we had already paid for breakfast.) She was aware of what had happened with our flight, and noted it was the first time in 15 years that she had seen a plane diverted for a crew change.  After chatting with her for a while, we learned of the “official reason” for our 2+ hour wait on the tarmac at Seattle – our plane was too heavy to be authorized for a flight to Portland.  Our minds did a double- and triple-take.  Yes, FAA requires that whenever a plane leaves an airport, it must have a backup airport to go to, and the backup for Seattle was Portland, and our plane was too heavy to fly from Seattle to Portland, so they had to offload passengers.  But, they did offload passengers, about 30 of them, we explained, and yet we took on more fuel and stayed at the gate for another two hours.  “Yes, but you were still too heavy,” she responded.  “But if we had not diverted to Seattle, and instead flown straight from Anchorage to Portland, we would  have been heavier because we had more passengers and bags,” we responded.  “Yes, but you were not too heavy to fly to Portland from Anchorage.”  Wait a minute, we were not too heavy to fly into Portland if we left from Anchorage, but we were too heavy to fly into Portland from Seattle?  She made it clear that we didn’t understand the intricacies of managing weight balance of aircraft.  Of course, as Alaskans, we routinely have to deal with managing weight issues of aircraft, whether on a small plane or helicopter.  Both of us have been required to leave things behind in order to meet weight requirements; heck, I even got bumped off two flights out of Holy Cross earlier this year because of weight issues.  Before we went too deep into the rabbit hole, we decided to disengage with the lady and move on.

We stopped into an electronics store, Soundbalance, because we needed to get a splitter to listen to two headphones with the iPad.  A salesperson, Michael, was not only helpful in finding us what we needed, he graciously listened to our story, which I tried to make funnier than it really was.  He and his coworker were very sympathetic and appalled at our story.  When we made our purchase, he reminded us we would need batteries, so we picked those up as well.  While I continued our story, he stripped out the splitter from its package, added two batteries, and threw away the trash for us.  It would also be the only satisfactory customer service experience we would have during our entire travel period.

After leaving Soundbalance, we decided to see if the Alaska Airlines Board Room itself would appreciate our situation and offer us a complimentary visit to the Board Room to help ease our ordeal.  In the end, I felt like I was living out the scene of a Charles Dickens story, or perhaps that flashback scene from “Lost” when Jin Kwon was working as a doorman at a prestigious hotel and a pauper and his son ask to be able to come into the hotel to use the bathroom. The visibly squirming boy simply can’t make it to the nearest public restroom, and, hey, aren’t you from a fishing village, too, don’t you understand?  Jin ultimately relents, knowing he is going to get into trouble as his boss had earlier warned him to not do such a thing.  Don’t let the lowly street rabble into the hotel; we have standards.

Well, apparently, the Alaska Airlines Board Room has standards as well.  When we entered the Board Room, there was a kind-looking gentleman in a suit standing behind the type of reception counter you find at an expensive hotel.  “Is this where we check in?” I asked.  “Yes,” Frank responded, “you can either show me your boarding pass or your Board Room membership card.”  “Well,” I answered, “we’re not exactly members,” I said.  And as I proceeded to tell him our story and how we were hoping that he could help us with a complimentary pass, his previously warm and embracing demeanor changed to one of practiced politeness supported by a forced smile.  They could not issue such complimentary passes, he explained, because they had limited capacity and they needed to make sure there was enough space for paying Board Room members.  As I looked out at the only 30% capacity with an exasperated look on my face, Frank anticipated my next move: “If we let you in now, then we would have to do it for everyone and soon we wouldn’t be able to support our members.”  “Are you telling me,” I responded, “that the sort of fiasco we have experienced today is so commonplace with Alaska Airlines that you would be overwhelmed with similar requests?” No, he responded, and then proceeded to present the usual dominoes theory justification for whey they couldn’t let us in.  The ultimate reason was simply that allowing us in “would diminish the value” for the Board Room members who pay for the privilege of using the space.

Of course, if we wanted to pay $45 each for a guest day pass, we would be welcome to stay.  But they would not let us in as compensation for losing a whole day of our vacation due to Alaska Airlines’ gross incompetence.  Well, we didn’t think we should have to pay to have a place to relax because of their screw up.

I have been an air traveler for 39 years.  My first flight was from Rapid City, South Dakota to Phoenix, Arizona, when I was six years old.  A few months later, I made my first Trans-Pacific flight on Pan American Airlines from LAX to Guam.  Since then, I have flown into or out of South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Bahrain, London, South Africa, Zambia, and a whole host of cities in the U.S.

I have flown countless miles on countless airlines, and never in all of those years of travel have I ever been subjected to such incompetence (the original scheduling fiasco that forced us to make a diversion just for a crew change to the 2+ hour wait on the tarmac that ensued) and such indifference (from the customer service counter to the national number to the operations person to the Board Room).  We heard a lot of apologies, but not one single offer of compensation for the value of our lost time.  From its marketing campaigns to its Club 49 program, Alaska Airlines makes a nice show of caring for its customers, particularly its Alaskan customers (despite its name, Alaska Airlines is based out of Seattle).  Today’s experience has shown that it is all smoke and mirrors.  Alaska Airlines’ message:  We don’t care if you see that man behind the curtain; we just don’t give a shit what you think of our operation because you are a captive audience.  You are, after all, only Alaskans, and we have standards.

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