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TPG Managing Editor Eric had an all-too-common experience while traveling home from Mexico on Alaska Airlines this past weekend: a flight delay which no one could say for sure how long it would last. Here’s what he did and what the airline did. What would you do?
I spent a few days outside Puerto Vallarta last week in the beach resort of Punta Mita. I flew there from San Diego on Alaska Airlines and though my outbound flight went off without a hitch (and even got me in early for some extra beach time!), the trip back proved to be an ordeal.
Because I was coming from Punta Mita, about an hour from the airport, I made sure to check the flight status online since I didn’t want to get stuck waiting at the airport if there was any delay. My non-stop flight from PVR-San Diego was listed as on-time departing at 3:55pm, so I hopped in a taxi and headed to the airport.
The Tale of Woe Begins
At the airport, I used an electronic kiosk to check-in and everything seemed fine until I went up to the counter to drop my bags off, at which point the ticket agent grimaced and said the flight was actually delayed and they couldn’t say when it would be departing for sure. Turns out there was a mechanical problem with the aircraft after it had left from Los Angeles, and it had to turn around, land again and get serviced.
I was given a food voucher for the airport restaurants and told to check back an hour later. I asked about flights the following day, but was told everything was oversold so the earliest I could get out if I wanted to change my flights would be Tuesday or possibly Wednesday. So I took my voucher and went to one of the restaurants where I used the WiFi signal to make a Skype call to Alaska Airlines to figure out what was going on.
The representative there tentatively put me on a flight the following day even though it was oversold and said one of two things would happen:
1. The original aircraft would be fixed and sent down sometime later that evening and the flight would be delayed until about 10pm.
2. The airline would find a new aircraft and send that down, possibly faster, but no way to know for sure how fast.
I was told the next update would be at 6:00pm, another 3 hours to wait in the airport! The folks at the ticket desk said the same thing, so I sent a Tweet to Alaska asking if someone there could tell me what was going on and whether I needed to stay at the airport or if I could leave for a while to get dinner in the city.
Going To The Source
Here’s what I said: “@AlaskaAir, you’ve got to do a better job updating passengers on flight delays! I’m on #241 and it could be 3-7 hours late. No one can tell me.”
While I was sending that out, I got an email from Alaska announcing the original flight delay, right around the time the flight was supposed to have departed. Seriously!
The Alaska Twitter account responded almost immediately with this: “The aircraft left LAX at 5PM and should arrive just before 10PM…”
So at least I had a new ETD, which I was able to confirm with the ticket agents. For some reason, though they had this updated information, they hadn’t made an announcement.
With some extra time on our hands, my mother and I took a taxi to the city and walked up and down the Malecon with families out for a Sunday evening stroll, then had a quick, light dinner in a restaurant she likes before coming back to the airport around 8:30pm just in case the situation had changed again.
It hadn’t – they were estimating an arrival at 10pm and our departure at 10:30 or so, so we had some more waiting to do, but at least we had a flight.
We Have Liftoff
There were only 30 passengers or so aboard, and the airline provided pizza from Sbarro and free drinks (booze too) to passengers during the 3-hour flight home. The crew apologized several times over the course of the flight as well, and handed out complaint postcards that would get each passenger who turned one in 2,000 Alaska miles. It seemed like paltry compensation, but I hadn’t ruled out calling in to the airline and asking for more since we eventually got in about 7 hours later than we were supposed to, almost at midnight.
That was Sunday evening, and though I hadn’t had time to contact the airline yet, by Tuesday morning, I received the following email:
“September 18, 2012
Dear Mr. Rosen,
On behalf of Alaska Airlines, please accept my personal apology for the difficulties experienced with Flight 241 in Puerto Vallarta on September 16, 2012. While passenger safety is our highest priority, we understand your time is valuable and regret that this situation caused disruption to your travel plans.
As you are likely aware, the inbound aircraft that was to be used for your flight experienced a mechanical delay in a previous city, which in turn delayed your flight. Our maintenance staff made every effort, but it was determined that additional time would be needed to complete the repairs on the original aircraft and the decision was made to use a different aircraft for both the inbound flight into Puerto Vallarta and your flight. However, I realize that this resulted in a lengthy delay to your flight. Please rest assured that we are reviewing this situation and we will do all we can to ensure that a similar scenario does not repeat itself. I would like to once again extend my sincere apologies for this extended delay and for any resulting inconvenience you experienced.
It is never our intent to provide a level of service that does not meet our customers’ highest expectations. As a customer service gesture, I have issued you each an electronic Discount Code, which may be redeemed for a discount off future travel at www.alaskaair.com. Discount Codes are valid for one year from the date of issue. Please reference the appropriate code below at the time of booking on alaskaair.com. Discount Codes do not require a pin and need to be entered in the Discount Code box at the beginning of your reservation. Complete rules and restrictions can be found online at www.alaskaair.com.
Eric Rosen, Discount Code ____in the amount of $250
We value your business and hope to have the privilege of welcoming you onboard another Alaska Airlines flight in the near future.
Customer Service- Airports”
I appreciated Alaska taking preemptive action to offer passengers compensation in a timely manner. Especially because according to the airline’s international contract of carriage, all we were entitled to was: “If your flight is delayed two hours or more, one of our airport Customer Service Agents will provide you with an Apology Brochure which includes 2,000 Mileage Plan Bonus Miles to be deposited into your Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account.”
What They Do In Europe
Just as a reference, the EU has stringent passenger compensation rights for delayed and cancelled flights known as Regulation 261/2004, though airlines are still fighting it in the courts, which are expected to issue a final ruling later in 2012.
The law mandates compensation between 250-600 euros ($326-$783) depending on how far you fly and how long you’re delayed when traveling on an EU airline with an EU airport as your point of departure or final destination. Theoretically for my flight, I would have gotten 400 euros ($522) based on the time and distance.
Though I’m still annoyed by the huge delay, the $250 voucher (my original ticket cost $400) and the consideration the various Alaska representatives I communicated with showed us means I’ll probably be taking the airline again in the next year, and I’m not going to carry a grudge.
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