Alaska Airlines faced a furious reaction from outraged passengers Monday after a weekend flight from Boston to L.A. was diverted to Buffalo, New York, and turned into a 30-hour nightmare journey.
Alaska Airlines faced a furious reaction from outraged passengers Monday following a weekend transcontinental flight that turned into a 30-hour nightmare journey.
Passengers boarded Alaska nonstop flight 1367 from Boston to Los Angeles on Saturday at 6 p.m., and waited almost two hours on the ground before takeoff in an uncomfortably hot cabin. Then, just 90 minutes into the flight, they were diverted because of an electrical burning smell to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York.
There, they spent hours through the night confined in a waiting area, unable to leave the airport and given no information as to what was happening.
No Alaska personnel were present for much of the forced overnight stay in Buffalo airport. Many of the passengers got no food and no sleep, according to accounts by several of them.
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Early next morning, the 140 passengers were flown back to Boston, where some like Maggie Rheinstein, 68, of Rhode Island, waited all day at Logan Airport before boarding a new flight to Los Angeles. More than 30 hours after boarding the first plane, they arrived in L.A. late Sunday night without their checked luggage.
“It was a horrible experience,” said Rheinstein, who was traveling with her husband Clark, 67, and their two cats in pet carriers. Daily medications for both her husband and one of the cats were still somewhere in transit Monday inside their luggage.
On Monday afternoon, Alaska was scrambling to reach passengers with apologies. Some who spoke to The Seattle Times and posted on social media still had no information about where their luggage is or what compensation they may be offered.
“This was a really, really difficult experience for our guests, a terrible experience,” Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said in an interview. “We are deeply sorry for what our passengers had to go through.”
She said Alaska’s East Coast employees are doing a “deep dive” into all that went wrong.
“A team of two dozen people is working on this and trying to make this right for our guests,” she said.
She said the airline will send baggage to passengers via FedEx and added that the airline is “looking at up to $1,000 in compensation” per passenger, which she said could be offered in the form of refunds or vouchers for future flights, depending on individual circumstances.
She said maintenance technicians traced the electrical burning smell to a malfunctioning fan used to cool the seat back entertainment system on the Airbus A320. On Monday, Alaska was flying the plane back to a maintenance base on the West Coast.
This seemingly minor technical issue sparked hours of discomfort and delay for passengers like 18-year-old Abigail Fitzgibbon from Boston, who was returning after the holiday break to her freshman year at UCLA. Throughout the night she was on the phone texting updates to her mother, Rachel, who was incensed by the lack of care offered by the airline.
“They had no ground game for landing at an airport where they don’t have a hub,” said Fitzgibbon’s mother. “They basically left them to fend for themselves.”
Egan conceded that this was the challenge: “It wasn’t handled as it would have been if we’d had our own people there.”
After the plane landed in Buffalo and everyone deplaned to the waiting area at about 10 p.m. Saturday, the crew took all the food off the plane and offered it to passengers, but it was quickly gone and the majority of passengers got little or nothing. Fitzgibbon said she got a cookie and a bottle of water.
During the almost six hours spent inside the Buffalo terminal, the passengers got only a couple of early updates from the captain that provided no hard information. Then he and the rest of the crew disappeared.
“The last anyone saw him was around midnight,” said Abigail. “We were confused why the crew abandoned us.”
A seasoned traveler on the flight, Tiffany Grace Devereaux, a biotech marketer in L.A. who also runs a popular women’s travel blog at stimulationfromabroad.com, said the crew “probably had to get some sleep.”
However, she said, few of the passengers did. The waiting area was brightly lit and uncomfortable.
The Alaska crew reappeared when a replacement plane arrived to take everyone back to Boston at 3:45 a.m. When they arrived at around 5:30 a.m., no gate was immediately available at Logan and passengers had to sit on the tarmac for another 90 minutes before getting off the plane.
Then more bad news: Alaska had rebooked everyone on a flight not scheduled to leave for L.A. until 4:30 p.m.
Devereaux and her traveling companion Christine Simonson were savvy enough travelers to go to the Alaska desk and demand hotel vouchers. After some resistance, Devereaux said, Alaska’s employees finally agreed. Simonson is convinced they succeeded only because they were tweeting irately about the airline’s treatment. Alaska made no general announcement offering food or hotel vouchers.
Clark Rheinstein approached the gate agents in Boston to ask about a hotel voucher, aware that the couple’s two cats could make that problematic. “But he never got to that part,” said his wife, Maggie. “The supervisor curtly said that was it, she could do no more.”
The pair settled in for the long day’s wait, each with a $20 food voucher. With permission from the airport chaplain, they rested with the cats in the empty chapel after Mass, spreading newspapers so the cats could relieve themselves. “Our cats are troupers,” said Maggie.
In the end, the rescheduled departure was also delayed, about an hour. Finally arriving at the gate in L.A. at about 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the passengers found no one at the Alaska desk as they got off the plane. Everyone trekked down to baggage claim, where Maggie Rheinstein said there were just “three overworked employees in the baggage claim office with no information about where our luggage was.”
On Monday, Fitzgibbon, who had planned to get to UCLA ahead of the start of classes, said she was totally drained. Simonson had to take the day off work. They and Devereaux all vow never to fly Alaska again.
“You absolutely cannot treat people like that,” said Devereaux.
Alaska’s Egan said “there are definitely some things we need to look at.”
Maggie Rheinstein agrees. “Most people think of Alaska as a friendly airline. It’s easy to be friendly when things go well,” she said. “The time you prove your corporate spine, your resolve to do business well, is when you are in a nasty situation.”