Alaska Airlines bumped a real American hero – should I get involved?

Chris Parypa Photography /
Chris Parypa Photography /
It’s not every day that you hear from a real American hero like Chuck Yeager. Yes, the Chuck Yeager. It turns out he and his wife, Victoria, catch my syndicated column in The Sacramento Bee.

They contacted me after running into some trouble on two separate itineraries to Anchorage, and despite every effort to get things sorted out with Alaska Airlines, they couldn’t.

By the way, if you don’t know who Chuck Yeager is, look up the word “hero” in the dictionary. You see that guy? That’s Gen. Yeager.
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Help! Airline broke my wheelchair and ruined Hawaii vacation

The road to Hana in Maui. / Photo by Ying Hai - Flickr
It was supposed to be a vacation of a lifetime for Jane Gray — a trip from Southwest England, where she lives, to Maui.

But it ended in disaster when Alaska Airlines damaged her wheelchair on a connecting flight between California and Hawaii. And even though Alaska repaired her wheelchair and offered a flight voucher and eventually, cash compensation, it’s not enough. She wants my help.
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A failed case from the Twilight Zone of travel

Next stop ... the Twilight Zone. / Photo by Roadside Pictures

If there’s a Twilight Zone of travel cases, then Rochelle Dean has surely discovered it. And although I’ve done my best to help her, it looks like her recent vacation is still stuck someone between “solved” and “unsolved.”
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Is this too much compensation? “This was some of worst service I’ve received in years”

Nathan Segal was certain his Alaska Airlines flight from San Jose del Cabo to Victoria, B.C., Canada, didn’t make a stop. He’d double-checked the itinerary when he booked it. The email said it was a “direct” flight.

He was wrong.

“It wasn’t until a few days later, when I went to upgrade my seat that I found out that my flight wasn’t direct after all, that it contained a stop in San Diego on the way to Seattle,” he says. “I was furious because I carefully checked the Alaska site to make sure that wasn’t the case.”

(For the record, there’s a difference between a “direct” and a “non-stop” flight. A direct flight is any flight between two points by an airline with no change in flight numbers, and it may include a stop. A non-stop flights is a direct flight without landing. Pretty tricky, huh?)
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Stopped payment on my compensation check

Question: I was recently denied boarding on an Alaska Airlines flight from Boise, Idaho to Sacramento. I was unable to check in early online, making me one of the last to check in at the airport.

I had to cancel an appointment and was rerouted through Portland. What should have been a half-hour stopover turned into a half day, and I arrived in Sacramento late in the evening.

Alaska Airlines wrote me a check at the airport for 200 percent of the amount of the original one-way ticket as compensation for the major inconvenience. Nice, right?

Not really. I’ve just found out that Alaska Airlines stopped payment on the check. My bank is charging me $7 for depositing it, too.

Needless to say, I’m absolutely furious with Alaska Airlines. Overbooking is a horrible practice. I can’t support a company that allows me to purchase something they don’t have to give. Is there anything you can do to get Alaska Airlines to make good on its promise? — Ashley Cates, Boise, Idaho

Answer: Yes, overbooking is a horrible practice. And once Alaska Airlines cut you a check, it should have honored it.

But should it have paid you for the denied boarding in the first place? According to Alaska Airlines’ contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the carrier — the answer is “yes”. It says that if you’re bumped from a flight, you’re owed 200 percent of the sum of the value of your remaining flight coupon to your next stopover, to a maximum of $800, or half that if the airline can arrange comparable air transportation.
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Best checked luggage policy? Hands down, it’s Southwest Airlines

Airline luggage has been making headlines recently, whether it’s US Airways’ controversial decision to add a $5 convenience fee to some checked bags or Alaska Air’s luggage fee/guarantee. But which airline has the most customer-friendly policy when it comes to checked luggage?

If you said “Southwest Airlines,” you’re right.

Not only does the airline not charge for the first and second checked bag. But when something goes wrong, as it did for Amy Bailey, the airline goes way beyond offering miles, and even the Montreal Convention requirements for compensation, to make customers happy.

Here’s what happened to Bailey:

My 12 year old son and I flew to San Francisco on Southwest during his school break in March. It was a multi-stop, but no plane change, trip from New Hampshire.

When we got to San Francisco and retrieved our bags from the carousel, my duffel had a big wet spot and stank like jet fuel. I took it over to the baggage claim office and began a damage claim.

My rain coat which was packed inside also smelled, but fortunately I had packed everything else in heavy plastic bags. They handed me a loaner bag to transfer everything into and a trash bag to isolate the duffel while we filled out the claim.

After a couple of conversations, trying to get the bag cleaned, washing the raincoat in the hotel bathtub, shipping the still stinky bag to Southwest, sending all the paperwork, discussing an offer of a different replacement bag with their luggage repair company, then waiting which seemed to take an eternity — but really was only three weeks after I got home — I received an apology letter, a check for the replacement cost of my bag, my out of pocket cleaning, and shipping and a LUV voucher for $100 towards a future flight.

Southwest made a mistake, but did a great job fixing it.

This isn’t a fluke. Southwest did the same thing for me when it lost my luggage a few months ago.

All of which makes me wonder: How difficult would it be for other airlines to do likewise?

Checked baggage fees are a failure, from both a customer-service and arguably from a financial point of view. Why not drop them?

The Montreal Convention, which sets minimum compensation for lost luggage, is exactly that — requirements for minimum compensation. And tell me, what are redemption rates on LUV vouchers? If I were a betting man, I’d say less than 10 percent. That doesn’t cost the airline a lot, does it?

Point is, it wouldn’t be too hard for the rest of the airline industry to follow Southwest’s leadership. It would sure make customers like Bailey happy.

Help, my ticket fell through the cracks

Question: I need your help fixing an award ticket problem. My husband and I recently booked a flight to Europe through Alaska Airlines using our frequent flier miles. We’re going to Zurich via London on British Airways, which is one of Alaska’s partner airlines.

Three weeks before we were supposed to leave, I went to British Airways’ Web site to check our reservations, but I could not find any information regarding our booking. I also checked the Alaska Airlines site and there was no record of any reservation there, either.

I called British Airways, and was told to talk with Alaska Airlines, since we booked through its loyalty program. Alaska Airlines told me British Airways had messed up and canceled our flights. Our reservations were supposed to be in business class. But now there’s no more availability in business class, and I’m being told we won’t hear anything for about a week, since our request must go directly to London.

At this point, we have no tickets. Frustrated, I called British Airways again and after talking with several agents. I was told British Airways had notified Alaska Airlines that there was a problem with our booking.

Alaska Airlines was supposed to check into it. Finally, an agent for Alaska admitted to me that our reservation simply “fell through the cracks.”

The way I see it, I had a contract for confirmed tickets to Europe. Alaska breached that contract and owes us a flight to Europe in business class, as originally promised. Any ideas? – Susan Null, Kingston, Wash.

Answer: I see it the same way. You booked award tickets through Alaska Airlines using your Alaska Airlines award miles. The proverbial buck stops with Alaska.

So why did you go after British Airways instead?

I would have applied more pressure to Alaska, and here’s why. As a loyal frequent flier, Alaska has a vested interest in keeping you happy. The airline is in a position to use its clout to push your business-class tickets through without having to “go directly to London.”

At the same time – and here’s where I think you got it right – you should have let British Airways know of your unhappiness. That includes sharing your disappointment with executives who are in a position to help. I list contact information for British Airways’ customer service managers on my Web site.

Frequent flier programs are the culinary equivalent of an ice cream sundae. They’re a dessert with lots of empty calories. Miles are seductive, but of questionable benefit – except, perhaps, to the airline getting your business as a result of your unquestioning loyalty. In the end, trying to collect and redeem awards can be a frustrating experience – not unlike trying to lose weight while on a diet of sundaes.

I contacted Alaska Airlines on your behalf, and it assured me that its records indicate the situation “had been resolved.” A company representative promised she would get in touch with you to be sure. A happy ending, right?


Strangely, when you contacted British Airways to check in before your flight, you found that your reservation wasn’t in the system, despite assurances from Alaska Airlines. You had to cancel your trip to Europe.

This might be a good time to consider switching to another airline’s frequent flier program.

Good grief! 3 tales of compassion-less customer service

Here at the travel industry’s unofficial complaints department, we count on having a day or two off, Good Friday being one of them. Not this year. Here are three recent stories of compassion-less customer service that arrived in the “in” box on what was supposed to be our “off” day.

“I can only give you ice.” The first report comes to us by way of reader Mike Emich, who flew from Greensboro to Hartford on Skybus recently. His plane sat on the taxiway more than three hours because of a mechanical problem. That proved to be plenty of time for the paid-on-commission Skybus crewmembers to generate more revenue for the airline.

The flight attendants where moving up and down the aisle selling food and drink. After two hours, a young boy next to me who did not have money asked her for something to drink. The attendant said, “I can only give you ice.”

Sigh. I understand the Skybus no-frills model, but even prisoners of war get water. Come on.

Dead? That’ll be $100, ma’am. Shirley Lantz was scheduled to fly from San Jose, Calif., to Bend, Ore., when her husband died just a day before her trip. She asked Alaska Airlines if she could get a refund on her ticket.

They said that I could use the ticket later but I would have to pay $100 more to travel. Is there any way that I could get a refund ? I am legally blind and have some difficulty using the telephone to contact the airline.

I asked Alaska repeatedly to help Lantz. Finally, yesterday, it agreed to a full refund. Common sense — not an inquiry from an ombudsman — should have guided the customer service agents at Alaska.

“Sir, there’s a rash on my legs.” Jeannette Haine just returned from Las Vegas. Just before she checked out of the Paris resort, she noticed little red bumps on her legs.

I thought I had hives until I mentioned this to my roommate. She developed the same rash after one night at the hotel. I called housekeeping and they promptly provided hypo-allergenic sheets for the maid to use on the beds. But the next morning we still had the red bumps.

Even though Haine filed a complaint, nothing was done. No compensation, no apology — nothing.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

So my friend flies back home, and on the plane she strikes up a conversation about the sheet problem with her seatmate. A woman two rows ahead hears this conversation, gets up and walks to my friend. She also has a rash on her legs and stayed at Ballys. As she is standing in the aisle, another woman hears the conversation and joins the group. She, too, developed a rash.

Her theory: all of these resorts use a central laundry facility. And something is not quite right at the cleaners. “Here’s my question,” she says. “What are they doing at this laundry? What’s being used on these sheets?”

Seems her resort should have responded with more than a “we’ll look into it” answer.

Got any stories of compassion-less customer service? Share them here.