Alaska Had a Bad Weekend But Shows How to Communicate When Things Get Ugly

If you were flying on Alaska Airlines this weekend, you had a rough go of it. The airline’s computer systems crashed and that meant plenty of delays and cancellations. Unlike Southwest in its meltdown earlier this month, however, Alaska handled this brilliantly from a communication standpoint.

You can see more on what Southwest did wrong on BNET, where I wrote about Southwest’s Rapid Rewards transition, airport systems failures, and the meltdown that followed. (This, by the way, is my very last week writing for BNET after 3 years on the job.) Southwest said it didn’t want to proactively communicate more than it did because it didn’t want to overburden its website which was already having problems.

Alaska may not have had website problems to muddy the waters, but its decision to go forward with very proactive communication is something that I imagine would have been the case regardless. The airline was doing a backup power supply upgrade when a transformer “blew” and the systems went down. This happened about 3am on Saturday. There were significant delays for flights at that point, and cancellations soon start piling on – about 150 or so in total. At 802a, Alaska sent its first tweet on the situation.

Alaska's First Tweet on Computer Failure

If I have one complaint, I would have liked to have seen a tweet show up earlier. But after that first tweet, the airline’s Twitter account went into overdrive with 11 separate tweets giving status updates, links to more information, and of course apologies. (This doesn’t include tweets that were sent in response to concerns of others.) Certainly Twitter wasn’t the only place where the airline was active. There were also 7 separate Facebook page updates dealing with the problems and four press releases.

Most importantly, I think, there was a big travel advisory placed in orange at the top of the page with a link to more information about the outage. At the same time, Alaska decided to loosen its change policy so that anyone traveling Saturday through today could make a change without a change fee. It was noted that hold times were long on the phones, but customers could also make those changes on the website.

Alaska's Website Warning of Computer Failure

By noon, the systems were at least partially working but delays persisted, of course. By yesterday, nearly everything was back to normal. And that’s when Alaska got even better. Alaska President Brad Tilden and regional subsidiary Horizon Air President Glenn Johnson put a 2m29s video on YouTube apologizing for everything and giving detailed information on what happened along with how people could still get help. It put a very welcome human face on the problem.

As noted in the video, the airline is encouraging anyone who had problems to contact the airline’s customer care group for what I assume is further compensation. At the very least, a personal apology will be issued. This was reinforced on the Facebook page and with a tweet:

For those customers that were impacted by yesterday’s flt disruption, pls contact us so we may follow-up individually: http://bit.ly/hBbGpr

In the end, there were plenty of angry people, without question. People were delayed and canceled and there will undoubtedly be some horror stories that circulate around this, but sh*t happens. It’s all about how the airline deals with its customers when it does happen, and Alaska did a fantastic job in this case.


14 Responses to Alaska Had a Bad Weekend But Shows How to Communicate When Things Get Ugly

  1. The video seems a bit stiff IMHO.

    That being said, they got out there and said “Hi we screwed up” That gives them huge kudos in my book. If you admit you made a mistake I’m willing to hang with you as you work through it.

    I guess the only thing they’re lucky with on this is it happened on a weekend, so it didn’t hit their peak schedule or as many business customers

  2. Bob says:

    From what I have gathered, Tilden and Johnson both were out in SEA airport all day Saturday walking up and down the airport, talking to and apologizing to customers. Like Brett said, sh*t happens, and while the airline probably couldn’t have really controlled the failure – it sounded almost like it was a freak accident- the fact that they stood up, owned the mistake and worked overtime to correct it, goes a long way in my book, even if I was stuck in the Spokane airport for 7 hours.

    Another thing that impressed me was to see the airline’s ability to mobilize it’s staff. In GEG, there was an agent at the ticket counter, dressed in a non standard horizon attire, and upon talking to him, he worked in Seattle, but was visiting family in Spokane for his days off when the problems started. He was asked to come in to GEG and help out there, even though he normally is staffed in SEA.

    I know I must sound like an AS fan boy, but being in the thick of it as a passenger, I must say, I really can’t think of anything they could have done different in this situation. The staff kept us informed of the delays/cancelations, and worked to get those of us on cancelled flights rebooked or hotel and meal vouchers quickly.

  3. Ian L says:

    Haven’t flown Alaska (they aren’t on the routesthat I travel) but it really does sound like they did everything right considering the situation. From.a techie point of view, where’s the data center redundancy, but from a customer service view there’s very little to nothing by way of room for inprovement.

  4. Morgan says:

    This is not directly on-topic, but I’m sorry to hear you’re leaving BNET. I’ve always enjoyed your articles there. Hopefully you can just port all those thoughts over to CF!

    • CF says:

      Thanks, Morgan. I’m a little sad to be leaving BNET as well, but it will give me some more time to focus on Cranky Concierge and some other projects that are in the works. I’ll certainly be covering all the big issues here on Cranky from now on instead of splitting coverage between the two.

  5. Peter says:

    I was stuck in SEA and had three consecutive flights cancelled – 12 minutes before scheduled departure I got a standby ticket to fly to San Diego on a flight that looked like it might actually go – San Diego is 2 hours from where I live, but it was either that or not get home till the next day or two – miraculously, we made it on the flight. All the flight attendants, pilots and gate agents had been very kind up until that point. On my way through the gate I told the gate agent we had had three flights cancelled closer to home and asked whether Alaska would help with ground transportation from San Diego – she was really snobby, snooty, snarky – however you want to say it – and said they don’t provide any ground transportation – supposedly, in her view, I “chose to go on that flight” – chose nothing! I was fortunate to be leaving on any flight at all going anywhere within a few hours of home because of their screw up. As I headed down the jetway I said “well, we’ll see what your customer service people have to say about that!” I had been calm all morning, but her attitude set me off. Later, about an hour into the flight, I asked the same question of the flight attendant, calmly and kindly, and she must have been warned by the gate agent that there were a couple of cranky people in our seats because she too came back at me hard with a comment of “you already had two flights to XYZ airports and you chose to go on this one – ground transportation is not our responsibility.” I knew enough to just shut up before they made an emergency landing and kicked me off the plane. The attitude absolutely stunk. Their airline had just screwed up 12,000 people’s day – all they would have had to say is “I don’t know if they will provide that, but please ask when we get on the ground. We’re really sorry for your inconvenience today.” That’s it. And to Alaska’s credit, most of their employees were exactly like that – just not these two for some reason. Brad Tilden has some additional work to do to get his attitude to trickle down to certain of his employees. Overall, I really like Alaska an fly with them a lot – some people just need to learn to put themselves in their customer’s shoes and grow some empathy and kindness.

  6. Tyler says:

    My cousin missed my grandfather’s funeral over the weekend. There’s a never a good time for such a problem, but it was very, very bad timing for our family.

  7. Some heads of airlines get it and some don’t on what they should do when things happen. If youtube was around in the late 80’s and 90’s could you see Robert Crandell going on youtube to explain the situation and spending the day at your main station talking to travelers?

  8. Steve says:

    We got caught in this incident on Sat morning. We were due to leave ANC at 0610, but by 0540, we got our first of several PA announcements of a delayed flight. As it turned out, we were on our way to SEA about an hour late. From what I saw, there was no attempt to keep bad news away from the passengers. I have been involved in other travel snafus with no information, or incomplete information and all I ask for is accurate information – AS gave us that in spades. I can deal with the problem if I know the cause. And, as Brett says, stuff happens – which is why we always plan our connecting flights to allow for the unexpected.

    On a side note, returning to ANC Sunday evening, our plane arrived about 20 minutes late. With AS’s new pre-positioning of ground trucks/crews, they turned the plane around so fast we were in the air about 3 minutes late and arrived back in ANC on time!

  9. Chris says:

    I was caught in SJC on Saturday. I got a text at about 10:00 indicating my flight had been cancelled. Luckily I was able to get reaccommodated for the first flight out the next morning. Not optimal, but better than waiting 2 days as some passengers did. From what I saw of the counter staff that afternoon, they were doing all they could…vouchers, transportation to OAK and SFO, checks issued on the spot for hotels, purchasing tickest on Southwest. I only saw one person blow her top, and she was being a bit over-the-top about it. While on our way to the airport, it dawned on me that we could try another airline. I was able to get my sister home to Montana that day (and earlier than she otherwise would have).

    I give them two thumbs up for how the situation was handled. Given similar circumstances, I doubt the head of United would have been doing the same.

  10. I was a stranded pax myself, but kudos to the job Alaska did to inform all customers and make the situation as good as possible. The gate agents were so apologetic I wanted to tell them to not be so hard on themselves. Southwest could definitely take a lesson from this!

  11. Scott says:

    I wasn’t trying to travel in this mixup, but two years ago I was trying to change planes via SEA; and SEA received a foot of snow overnight and was closed until 12:30pm.

    Needless to say the C & D concourses at SEA were packed, but there wasn’t any cranky travelers because AS handled it so well

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