Alaska Airlines / Horizon Air Bombardier Q400. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.

Alaska Airlines / Horizon Air Bombardier Q400. Image by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.

What a cruddy week for Alaska Airlines (and Horizon Air) in the press. First they get accused of mistreating an elderly man with a disability, then accused of flying around with broken airplanes twice and a flight has to make an emergency landing.

So far, two of the stories have been picked up around the world and put the Seattle-based airline in a negative light. Might there be more to these stories than just the sensational headlines? Well, of course.

The first story involves a passenger with a disability. If you read the story in full, no question it is a sad one and it seems like someone with Alaska probably dropped the ball. However, this story really got out of control. The man, who has late stage Parkinson’s had difficulty understanding the check-in and boarding process. Ticket agents tried to explain his bag was too large to take to the gate, but he was not able to understand. It turns out that the agents thought the man was drunk and the passenger never self identified as someone with a disability who needed special assistance and it is illegal for the airline to ask if someone has a disability. So, you have a person who appears to be drunk, they smell alcohol (which can be a side effect of the Parkinson’s or medication), what are they supposed to do? Turns out that when the man tried to go through security, he was told to go back to check in his bag and he ended up missing his flight.

Another passenger, who saw what was happening, tried to help the man and his companion, who had MS, but did not have much luck. He did what many people do, rant on Facebook, but his rant went viral. Part of his post stated that Alaska employees were “the worst of humanity,” and the media took over the story from there.

There were many interesting headlines on this one, playing up that the employees were the worst of humanity. My favorite comes from The Daily Mail with, Alaskan Airlines faces outrage as staff are accused of ‘being the worst of humanity’ for ‘ignoring 70-year-old Parkinson’s sufferer’

Wait. Alaskan Airlines? Which airline is that? Well, I know that The Daily Mail is much more known for their shocking headlines than journalistic integrity. Anyhow, Alaska seemed to handle the situation the best that they could after knowing what happened.

“First and foremost, we’ve determined that we could and should have handled this better and I apologize to our passenger on behalf of all of us at Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines,” Horizon Air President Glenn Johnson wrote in a Facebook post. “This experience has reminded us of the importance of assisting passengers with disabilities and making sure every one of them receives the special care they may need. The information we’ve gathered during our review will certainly improve our efforts going forward.”

After Alaska  realized what had happened, they refunded the man’s ticket and provided a second free ticket for a future flight.

“We’ve worked with a variety of disability organizations for years, which has helped us improve our service for travelers with disabilities,” said Ray Prentice, Alaska Airlines’ director of customer advocacy. “This incident provides another learning opportunity for our employees as well as for travelers with disabilities.”

Ironically, Alaska already had a meeting set up with the Open Doors Organization, which does disability advocacy.

According to Harriet Baskas with NBCNews, Eric Lipp, the group’s executive director confirmed that there are laws to help protect passengers with disabilities, “but the law says the passenger has to self-identify. Otherwise, it’s a puzzle. The breakdown here is that the passenger didn’t self-identify and the airline didn’t have the right codes in the system to get him services he was entitled to.”

It was a bad experience that Alaska is surely learning from, but it seems that they aren’t evil and horrid, like so many are making them out to be.

Is this something to really get worked up over?

Is this something to really get worked up over?

Unrelated to the previous story, passengers on an Alaska Airlines flight got a bit disturbed seeing a piece of one of the flaps was cut off and the words “we know about this,” written in marker next to it. Sure, I get it. Seeing a part of the plane missing with a note would be a bit bothersome for most people. But is this enough to make global news?

It was a proper repair, the plane was safe to fly and this is a non-issue.

Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan stated, “It was an approved trim repair to the corner flap on the right wing. A maintenance technician wrote to let the flight crew know. The message was the result of someone’s good intentions,” but she continued saying that it, “was not appropriate and did not follow company procedures.”

If these two other global-reaching stories were not enough, there have been two others more recently that have not been so good.

Flight 539 from Ontario, CA to Seattle declared an emergency after pilots had to pressurize the cabin manually. The aircraft’s air/ground sensor malfunctioned, which caused a series of electrical problems. The oxygen masks never deployed and the flight landed safely in San Jose, with no injuries. Surely not a great experience for the passengers on board.

Then, this morning, the FAA is proposing a $1million fine against Horizon Air (which operates Alaska Airlines flights) due to allegedly having 22 aircraft that were not in compliance with the FAA’s rules.  According to KOMO News, the airline installed new security flight deck doors on 22 of their Bombardier Q400 aircraft, using blind rivets versus solid rivets. At this time, the airline has not responded to the allegations.

Obviously, this has not been a great week for the airline. However, Alaska has always been known with handling things quite well and has done as much as they can with the issues that come up. Let’s just hope that next week is a bit better for them.

UPDATE:
Here is Alaska Airlines response to the FAA fine:
Horizon Air has an uncompromising commitment to safety and compliance. We put the safety of our passengers, our employees and our aircraft above all else. Horizon takes any safety or compliance matter very seriously. We continually work with federal authorities to ensure the safety of our customers and that our aircraft are in full compliance with all federal aviation regulations while on the ground and in the air.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Horizon Air worked to install the FAA-mandated fortified flight deck door.  To properly install the stronger door, nearby equipment on the Q400 flight deck had to be relocated. In relocating another piece of equipment, not associated with the door, Horizon opted to use an alternate, stronger rivet. At the time, Horizon believed this alternate rivet
was an acceptable substitution and that the carrier was within its authority to make the change.

In 2011, Horizon found several damaged wires shortly after performing the same installation procedure on a new aircraft. Horizon attributed the damage on this aircraft to the method used to install the alternate rivet.  After this finding, the FAA questioned the use of the alternate rivet. While we believed at the time that the alternate rivet was a proper substitution, when the FAA expressed concern, we took immediate action to inspect our entire fleet and replace the alternate rivet with the specified rivet on all of the affected aircraft.

At no time was passenger safety comprised nor was the integrity of the flight deck door ever threatened by the use of this alternate fastener.

Since learning of the FAA’s concern, all maintenance procedures have been revised to ensure the use of the specified rivets when relocating hardware related to the installation of the fortified flight deck door.

Horizon Air is working cooperatively with the FAA to discuss the proposed $1,005,000 civil penalty associated with this rivet substitution. Nothing will be final until we have fully reviewed this matter with the FAA.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: [email protected]

http://www.airlinereporter.com
A Classic Eastern Air Lines Commercial With the Boeing 727
22 Comments
John-Alan

I must say I don’t understand the fuss about the note. If I see a chip out of the flap with a note saying ‘we know about this’ that tells me someone has inspected the damage, consulted the maintenance manual, and decided the plane is safe to fly. I’d be far more worried about obvious damage without a note.

RH Hastings

I too like the note on the flap, but they could have cleaned the area and spray painted it without the photo going viral.

I have a question: Why is it illegal for an airline to ask if a person has a disability? I mean this is the perfect example why it should be required by law to confirm if the PAX is in need of special assistance!
Now the note on the Flap in my opinion is funny as hell and share John-Alan’s view, but I also believe is something that should not be underestimated: PAX are like scared cattle: When spooked they will panic and it will be difficult to calm their ignorant minds as they have NO clue about why an airplane actually flies. You can do that on Cargo Airplanes, but as the image of a passenger airline will suffer from this kind of things, just repair this before returning the plane into service! Saves you a heck load of headaches!

John-Alan

” just repair this before returning the plane into service!”

Performing a repair on a plane can be quite complex. Usually large repairs need to be done at a maintenance base. In this case the repair will -I’m guessing- ultimately involve replacing the flap. That needs to be done in a well equipped maintenance hangar, not to mention that airlines don’t have spare flaps lying around all over the place.
Trimming off a small piece of the flap, as was done here, is a temporary repair that allows the plane to fly safely until the airline can get it back to a maintenance facility.

Marco, it is not just airlines. It is illegal to ask someone about their disability status. People have to self report.

I agree that people would be spooked on the plane, I get that. What I don’t get is how the story got so big. As John-Alan points out, it is not easy to go about repairing flaps.

Sure, if Alaska pulled the plane out of service (even though there were no safety issues) and passengers were stranded, they would have been A LOT more upset, but it would have been a non-story.

David

John-Alan

“What I don’t get is how the story got so big.”

In Dutch we have the word ‘komkommertijd’, which translates to ‘cucumber time’. The (possibly mythical) origin of the word is that in times when there wasn’t anything newsworthy going on in the world, the media would report on the state of the cucumber crops, or something equally banal, simply because they had to fill the air time / newspaper pages. If there is nothing interesting going on it’s ‘cucumber time’ again.

With the advent of 24-hour news channels and sites this phenomena is becoming worse. We the public demand a constant stream of new news items. If there is nothing interesting going on the media are forced to write about minor non-stories instead, just to satisfy the demand for constant content. Of course once the first couple of news outlets are reporting on a certain story it becomes a big story, simply by virtue of the number of outlets reporting it, which leads to more outlets reporting it, and a snow-ball effect happens.

Paul Lewis

Or just write your notes on the UNDER side of the wing…

Keith Freitas

Funny how one news media writes a story without checking all the facts and the others just follow blindly like lemmons going over the cliff. See happen every day. Then there is no retraction or a follow up to correct the mistake.

The more I write on stories about the airline business, the more I become skeptical of many of the media sources out there. Now, there are quite a few to trust and I think many in the local Seattle area do a great job. But it seems that if the journalist doesn’t specialize in aviation, the story has many issues in it.

David

John-Alan

Unfortunately it’s true for way more subjects than aviation. You only notice it in the aviation stories because you know enough about aviation to be able to see the holes. Next time you get to speak to a scientist or an engineer (I’m guessing you might run in to a few at some of the events you go to) ask them how they feel about the quality of science reporting in general in mass media. This comic is very very true: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174

The important question is, are stories about topics I don’t know much about (economics, finance, countries far away) better, or am I just not able to see the holes?

“While we believed at the time that the alternate rivet was a proper substitution”.
Let me guess, they went with “alternative” rivets because they were cheaper. $1,005,000 civil penalty is not enough.

1) “It was a proper repair, the plane was safe to fly and this is a non-issue.”

Non-issue, Mr. Brown? Are you serious? You actually think this casual, rather flippant note written on an wing part clearly visible to passengers would not alarm them, especially those who know nothing about aircraft? It certainly alarms me, and I’m a structures design engineer with 21 years experience working for a major airframe manufacturer. Your condoning of this grossly unprofessional act is very disturbing and does no favors at all for our industry.

2) “Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan stated, ‘It was an approved trim repair to the corner flap on the right wing. A maintenance technician wrote to let the flight crew know.'”

Say what? Let me get this straight, Ms. Egan: Alaska considers this a proper way for their mechanics to communicate with flight crew regarding a repair? Um, isn’t this normally done through something called “paperwork”? Or do you guys even bother with that now?

I thought the note was kind of funny, actually.

Ray,

I see this being a concern for passengers, no question. I would probably be questioning it myself if I was on the flight. What is bothersome is how this story made world-wide news. It is a standard type of repair that is completely safe. A worker messed up and put the note on the wing, which is was not supposed to and Alaska says that is against their policy.

The person messed up, but no one was every in danger. I call that a non-issue.

Now if he would have written “OMG repair this before flying,” that would be a different story.

David

Ray, your post betrays your resume, I’m afraid. The note wasn’t there for the pilots, who would see the repair plainly during a walk-around (or, if not, find mention of it in the ship’s log.) But what if they didn’t, you ask? What if the worst-case scenario should occur and they miss all the indications?

(cue tense music)

…Nothing. No crash, no control problems, not even a minute change in takeoff speed or cruise AOA. Maybe if the airline had detailed equipment installed and flew the plane like that for a month they might notice an increase in fuel burn due to disturbed airflow over that wing section in cruise flight, but that’s about as bad as it gets.

As for the note, it’s there precisely so ground crew don’t have to file paperwork about the exact same thing every time the plane lands.

So the only story here is explaining why this isn’t a story.

The trim repair is know at some airlines as a “shark bite” for what should be obvious reasons. In fact, Boeing in some cases delivers the airplane in that condition with the understanding it will rectify it at a later at their cost and not hold up a delivery. In truth, people would be surprised of all the dings an airplane has (usually around cargo doors.) That airplane does not “feel” the little semi circle missing- aerodynamically speaking. Everyone just needs to grow a sense of humor like the maintenance tech has.

This is the problem. Most people think that any damage on the plane is going to cause it to crash and burn. Fact is planes can take a beating and be safe. Really, in this case, Alaska is losing gas from the aerodynamics and now a bit of PR due to over-hyping a non-issue.

David

In an industry full of jargon and acronyms, there isn’t one for an airline/aircraft situation such as this?! Even supermarkets use jargon to make sure “sensitive” situations aren’t blurted over the loudspeakers or printed on receipts. I wouldn’t have made a big deal about this, but the sheer number of casual passengers onboard flights outnumbers aviation enthusiasts ALWAYS, so a group such as AS (especially at AS who prides itself on being disciples of the “Disney U” way of work) really should be able to think ahead and try its best to never be behind a story.

John-Alan

I’m guessing the normal way of reporting something like this is to write it up in the maintenance log that the flight crew reviews before starting the flight. As Alaska stated, this message ‘did not follow company procedures’.

did they see their daughter.

It seems that everone in the airport other than the employees could tell they had a handicap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *