Alaska Airlines customer service travesty creates nightmare for family with emergencies

By | August 6th, 2016

An involuntary denied boarding. A hostile agent. A missing refund.

It’s not every day that it all comes together in a single case, as it did for Christina Mikolajcik-Edles. Her story involves a dying relative, the challenge of traveling with twin infants and an emergency hospital visit.

Mikolajcik-Edles wants to know if airline rules about check-in times should be waived in emergency cases, such as hers — and whether airlines should reimburse passengers treated rudely by their personnel.

Mikolajcik-Edles and her husband booked a flight for themselves and their twin infant daughters on Alaska Airlines from Charleston, S.C., to Seattle to visit her terminally ill mother-in-law. Unfortunately, on the morning of the day they were scheduled to depart, one of their daughters needed treatment for a localized infection at the local emergency room. But her doctors cleared her for travel to Seattle the same day, so a friend rushed the Edleses with their daughters to the airport to catch their flight.

Here’s Mikolajcik-Edles on what happened next:

When we checked in at the counter, the agent stated that we had arrived too late to be allowed to check bags. I explained the circumstances and showed her documents showing that we had just been at the emergency room. She continued to argue with me about the bags, so I agreed to send the bags back home with the friend who had driven us to the airport and we would travel with our carry-on bags only.

At that point, she informed me that we were now past the time that she could issue our boarding passes. During this entire 20-minute conversation, I was crying and pleading with her and another Alaska Airlines representative who was standing next to her. The second woman was shaking her head and asking the “head agent,” “Could I please call down to the gate for them?” The agent “helping” me offered no option to rebook the flight or any other solution for another flight to get us to our destination.

Because of her mother-in-law’s condition, time was of the essence. Mikolajcik-Edles went to the Delta counter and purchased tickets for a flight the next morning to Seattle via New York, which required an overnight stay in New York. While still in Washington State, Mikolajcik-Edles called Alaska Airlines and requested a credit for the originating flight from Charleston to Seattle. At the same time, she confirmed her family’s return tickets and seat assignments for their return flight from Seattle.

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But during the return flight, the nightmare resumed:

We arrived at the Seattle airport at 6:45 a.m., waited in line to check our bags curbside where we were issued our boarding passes and baggage claim slips. By 7:20 a.m. we were going through the TSA inspection and waiting to have the baby formula scanned, etc. We arrived at the gate at 8:20 a.m. and the airplane was at the gate. [The departure time was 8:25 a.m.]

The male agent at the counter stated that they had paged, called, waited for us but had closed the plane early with our bags still on board — which I believe is a TSA violation. Once again, I was crying and pleading for them to allow us on the plane. I checked my cell phone and had no missed calls. I explained that and communicated that we clearly had checked in and checked our bags. How could they not see that we were in the airport?

The agent offered to put Mikolajcik-Edles and her family on an Alaska Airlines flight to Atlanta for a change fee of $500, connecting with a Delta flight to Charleston. Realizing that he had left her with no other option, Mikolajcik-Edles gave him her credit card and he printed the boarding passes for her family’s flight to Atlanta.

Then Mikolajcik-Edles asked to speak to a supervisor.

“The agent then threatened to cancel my boarding passes, take them back and not help me at all,” says Mikolajcik-Edles. He stated that he was doing her a favor that was costing the airline a lot of money, and that it was somehow her family’s fault that they did not arrive at the gate to board the plane before the door was closed. The people sitting near the check-in counter could easily see and hear what was going on, and three separate women came up to Mikolajcik-Edles offering to help and stating how unfair the situation was.

Mikolajcik-Edles wrote to Alaska Airlines to request help in obtaining $3,000 as full reimbursement from Alaska Airlines for all of the costs she incurred because of its agents’ unwillingness to allow her to check her bags and board her flights. (We provide executive contact information for Alaska Airlines on our website.) When they refused to reimburse her, she wrote to our advocacy team to request assistance.

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Alaska’s contract of carriage contains this provision regarding baggage check-in times:

Minimum Times for Checked Baggage: Alaska may refuse to accept any article of Checked Baggage that has not been presented, checked in, and processed at least forty (40) minutes prior to scheduled departure time. Baggage checked in less than forty (40) minutes prior to a flight’s scheduled departure time may be accepted and Alaska will make reasonable efforts, but cannot guarantee, to transport such Baggage on the Passenger’s flight(s). Alaska will not assume responsibility for delivery charges if such Baggage arrives at the Passenger’s destination on a subsequent flight.

While this provision meant Alaska’s agent could refuse to allow Mikolajcik-Edles and her family to check their baggage when they arrived at the airport in Charleston, it didn’t require that the agent refuse. And she could have shown the Edleses some kindness and compassion in allowing them to check their baggage and board the flight or alternatively to rebook another Alaska Air flight, given that the Edleses were faced with a double emergency and could even show her documentation of the hospital visit that delayed their arrival at the airport.

Alaska’s conduct on the return flight was a travesty of anything resembling “customer service.” It closed the airplane doors early, with the Edleses’ baggage on board, but refused to allow them to board. The gate agent made unsupported claims that the airline had tried to call her, and then became hostile when Mikolajcik-Edles asked to speak to a supervisor.

Unfortunately, Alaska’s contract of carriage disclaims responsibility on the airline’s part for this situation:

Failure to comply with Alaska check-in time limits will result in the cancellation of the Passenger’s reservation and will render him/her ineligible for denied boarding compensation …

Acceptance of the compensation by the Passenger … constitutes full compensation for all actual or anticipatory damages incurred or to be incurred by the Passenger as a result of Alaska’s failure to provide the Passenger with confirmed reserved space and relieves Alaska from any further liability to the Passenger caused by Alaska’s failure to honor the confirmed reservation. If Alaska’s offer of compensation pursuant to the above provisions is not accepted, Alaska’s liability is limited to actual damages proved not to exceed $1,350 USD per ticketed Passenger as a result of Alaska’s failure to provide the Passenger with confirmed reserved space. Passenger will be responsible for providing documentation of all actual damages claimed. Alaska shall not be liable for any punitive, consequential or special damages arising out of or in connection with Alaska’s failure to provide the Passenger with confirmed reserved space. However, the Passenger may decline the payment and seek to recover damages in a court of law or in some other manner.

Alaska Airlines responded to our advocates’ inquiry with:

We’re very sorry for the experience our customer had in February – after looking into this, our records indicate that our customer missed her Feb. 5 flight, after attempting to check in for her first flight 20 minutes prior to departure. We are unable to check in any additional passengers after 40 minutes prior to departure. …

For the second flight on Feb. 10, we would be happy to refund the $500 in change fees for the flight that was missed while the family was delayed in security lines as a one-time customer service gesture. We certainly know that security lines were very challenging earlier this year.

But considering the Edleses’ emergency situation on the day of the earlier flight and its complete lack of acceptable customer service on the return flight, our advocates don’t think Mikolajcik-Edles is asking too much to have her family’s additional expenses fully reimbursed by Alaska Airlines.

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And Alaska needs to retrain its personnel in how to treat customers with compassion. No passenger should ever have to endure callous attitudes from airline agents — especially during emergencies. When gate agents rebook passengers on alternative flights who have been forced to endure long security lines that prevent them from reaching their gates prior to takeoff, that’s their job — not a “favor.”

Should Alaska Airlines reimburse Christina Mikolajcik-Edles for the entirety of her additional expenses?

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