Facebook flap update: Airline issues apology

Alaska Air boss: 'We could have handled this better'

POSTED: 2:14 PM PDT August 4, 2012    UPDATED: 5:02 PM PDT August 6, 2012 
Alaska Airlines Facebook note
BEND, Ore. -

Horizon Air President Glenn Johnson apologized to a customer on Facebook today after a Facebook firestorm arose over alleged poor treatment of a disabled man's attempt to board a flight in Redmond and visit his daughter last Friday.

Bend event producer Cameron Clark sparked the furor with a Facebook posting Friday, calling airline employees' lack of care for the man "the worst of humanity."

The airline noted he flew to see his daughter on Saturday.

“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,” Johnson wrote in his posting (which you can read at https://www.facebook.com/notes/alaska-airlines/a-message-from-horizon-air-president-glenn-johnson/10150964714936073

"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," he added. "The information we’ve gathered during our review will certainly improve our efforts going forward.”

As part of its review of the incident, Alaska Airlines refunded the passenger’s initial ticket, provided a complimentary round-trip flight for his trip and offered a second round-trip ticket for him to visit his daughter again at a later date. Horizon Air operates regional flights on behalf of Alaska Airlines.

“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.”

Alaska and Horizon have partnered with Open Doors Organization, an independent disability advocacy group, to review employees’ handling of the situation and suggest improvements in the airlines’ disability, awareness and sensitivity training.

Eric Lipp, Open Doors Organization’s executive director, advises passengers with a disability who are traveling to:

• Self-disclose to the airline any assistance you may need before you
arrive at the airport. This could include an escort or wheelchair
assistance through security, to the gate, and while boarding and
exiting the plane.

• Ask the airline if you prefer to have a personal assistant escort you
to the gate. Most airlines will issue passes to personal assistants to
help passengers with disabilities get to or from the gate area.

• Plan ahead and arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before your
flight departs, which allows time to check luggage, obtain wheelchair
services, get through security and board the flight.

As a long-time, well-known Bend event producer, Clark is well-versed in how to get things done, large and small, and what it takes to please your customers. He also can get mighty steamed at examples of the opposite – and in today’s fast-moving world of social media, a detailed, anger-inducing Facebook post about witnessing a prime case of alleged poor service can ignite a firestorm.

And it did.

Nowadays, a fast-spreading story pointing to what Clark called “the worst of humanity” can also move a big company, like an airline, to fast action -- even on a weekend. (After all, no company wants to be the target of another viral campaign or YouTube video like the infamous “United Breaks Guitars.”)

The latest example of such an online explosion of righteous anger transpired after Clark fired off a note to his hundreds of Facebook friends on Friday, detailing what he considered very shoddy service by Alaska Airlines representatives at Redmond Airport who, he said, “ignored” and failed to properly assist a disabled, physically challenged man and his companion who were trying to get him on a flight to Bellingham, Wash. to see his daughter, perhaps for the last time.

The anger spread, as Clark’s friends told their friends, and the viral nature of Facebook took over.

The man missed the flight, but Clark’s missive and the resulting outcry didn’t miss the mark – not by a long shot – as the airline quickly got involved, not just in investigating what went wrong and refunding his ticket but, after the hullabaloo took on steam, announcing that it had flown the man to another location, to meet his daughter on Saturday.

And because it all was playing out in public, as things do these days, they also posted their responses publicly, leaving some digital onlookers dissatisfied, others less so.

Some of the many to weigh in on the matter pointed to federal laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Accessibility Act. Others urged the man at the center of the situation to sue, or vowed not to fly the airline unless it did right by those involved and made sure it never happens again.

But while Clark said he never intended his frustration-fueled missive to go viral on Facebook and beyond, he said Saturday afternoon that the thousands responding to his tale of "the worst of humanity" actually has shown him one thing: that "the best of humanity is alive and well. that light exists. that accountability is possible."

Clark insisted he did not intend to create a stir, but said "the unintended consequence was a good one, that people demonstrated the best of humanity in response to this all."

He also praised the airline, saying it "has an outstanding track record (and) ended up doing the right thing (at least most of the way there)."

But later, on Saturday night, the airline posted another update that Clark found disturbing. It said the customer "arrived late and didn't request or assistance or let us know of any disabilities."

"He was also exhibiting signs of inebriation and smelled of alcohol," the airline claimed, adding that they are "conducting a thorough review" of the incident and will respond to the customer within 10 days.

Clark was dismayed at the turn of events and disputed the report.

"I was closer to him than any of their employees," he wrote. "I stood right next to him for fifteen minutes, and we spoke to each other within inches of each other. I smelled absolutely nothing."

"It's unreal what they are doing now," Clark said..

Here's Clark's original note, edited only to protect confidentiality, and the airline's responses (as well as Clark's responses to them).

---

SAD STORY...

i witnessed today, what i consider to be the worst of humanity.

standing in line at an @alaska airlines ticket check in, in redmond oregon, i watched as a disabled/mentally and physically challenged couple were left standing in the front of a line by the ticket attendant ... who didn't say a word- no "final call, redmond to seattle"-- no "if you are flying to seattle, it's too late to make this flight," etc-- nothing.

when a different agent appeared 1/2 hour later-- the flight still had not left. i asked for a quick "side bar" with the new agent-- telling her that this couple needed some leeway-- some additional help. she quickly informed me that "we treat every single customer the exact same here"-- she was annoyed by my insistence and advocacy.

i tried to explain to her that her colleague had left the man and his companion alone, without saying a word to them. that they were "different" and that it would be ok for her to make exceptions for them (uttering something like, "exceptional circumstances sometimes require, exceptional responses").

(The attendant) finally agreed to try to get the man on the flight-- but he couldn't bring his luggage (ug).

he had a hard time walking-- no one offered him a wheelchair or asked how they could be helpful. he stumbled off toward the safety inspection line.

predictably, he didn't understand/comprehend their restriction of his luggage, and got stuck in security.

while this was going on, the ticket attendant and myself were continuing to have quiet words about how they needed extra help-- she told me that "i didn't know the whole story"-- that he had the "same problem yesterday, showing up late to his first flight."

i told her that i thought there was a real reason he was struggling to make it anywhere on time, and that this was cause for some compassion and some exceptions to rules, and some additional assistance.

by now i was fully annoying her. she had her rules, and she was growing tired of my moral compass.

security ended up sending the man back, telling him in the confusion around his luggage that there was no longer enough time for him to make his airplane, without the plane running late.

the original attendant ..., returned, and lightly shamed the couple for being late for the second time in a row, telling them there was no way the man could get to bellingham before 9pm now.

the man and woman broke into tears. his "nervous system hurky/jurkyness" became profound. he begged her to help him. nothing.

i asked tiffany to go on with the kids, that i wanted to stick around and advocate for this couple for the 20 minutes i could and still make my own flight...

i asked the man for his name. (He) he and his companion were easily 70 something. he was crying something fierce by now. i asked him what his condition was. he said he had late stage parkinsons, and that his companion had MS.

i asked to speak to the on site manager. (He) listened to me politely tell him the story about the man with parkinsons, and the woman with MS, and how none of his staff did anything to offer them additional assistance when it was clear to all 20 of us in line, how much they needed it and deserved it, and then he explained to me that the "laws don't allow alaska airlines to provide anyone, for any reason "special treatments."

i wrote that comment down, word for word. he responded by saying, "so great, you are going to take me completely out of context aren't you?" i said, "what other context is there?" i asked you why your staff didn't help these people, and, in that exact context, you backed up your employee who told me that everyone is treated exactly alike. he stood by this position.

the end of this story is sad to the core. after wrapping up with (the manager), i talked to (the man) for a bit longer.

this trip- redmond to seattle/seattle to bellingham, was allowing him to see his daughter one final time, who works on the ferry system and is out on the water for most of her time-- she was scheduled to meet him in bellingham at 3pm today. he said that it was a "bucket list" item that he could no longer realize. i asked him if she could get off the ferry and wait for him tomorrow-- and he said that she was only available for this brief time today-- that he was to join her on the ferry, and that otherwise she'd be out on the water for days-- his trip was done. he couldn't re-schedule. he was simply, now, in defeat, asking for his money back.

what part of this story is "ok" in any way?

what happened to our collective sense of decency, of compassion, of our disposition to help those in need of extra help.

alaska airlines. you broke a man's heart today. you maintained your policy, and ignored an opportunity to do the right thing.

you broke my heart too.

if i knew who to contact, i would contact them and invite them to pay for this man's daughters unpaid leave, and provide her a ticket to come see her father? short of that, i know of nothing that could undo the inhumanity i witnessed today.

blech.

boo.

---

The airline's first response:

"Our customer advocacy team has launched a full investigation to gather the facts from employees and customers. Until we gather all the facts, it would be premature for us to comment any more on the specifics of what happened. We have also reached out to Cameron to get all the details from him. We appreciate everyone's patience while we conduct our review."

---

Then, from the airline:

Aug. 4, 2012 - 12:25 AM

Hi everyone. We want to let you know we're actively following up on what happened at Redmond Airport today. After our customer missed his flight and we did not have another flight that would get him to his destination in time, we refunded his ticket. We then offered to accommodate him to Vancouver, BC, and he declined. We've gathered some facts about this incident and are working on getting more. We've also emailed Cameron, who originally made us aware of this situation, for his phone number so we can talk with him.

---

And later, the airline posted this update:

*** UPDATE: Aug. 4, 2012 - 10:25 AM ***

Hi everyone. We have been working since last night to collect as much information as we can and we have some updates on our passenger who was trying to see his daughter in Bellingham.

The good news is he flew out of Redmond this morning to a different location and is scheduled to arrive there about 11:30 a.m. local time. Our passenger tells us his plans changed and that he and his daughter will now meet at the alternate location.

We will continue to gather details from people involved with this, including Cameron Clark. Alaska Airlines has a good record working with special needs passengers who routinely fly on us, and we always review situations such as this one to learn and keep improving our service.

Our passenger bought his ticket to Bellingham at Redmond Airport on Thursday. It is unfortunate that he was unable to pass through security with an oversize suitcase in time for his flight on Friday after he changed his mind about leaving the bag with a companion (who dropped him off at the airport) so she could ship it.

We refunded the ticket at his request after we were unable to get him to Bellingham by the time he needed to meet his daughter.

Cameron: As you pointed out on your page, there are additional back stories, however, we are sharing limited details out of respect for the privacy of the passenger.

---

Clark then posted the following update and response on his Facebook page

UPDATE: Alaska Airlines is flying brent to be with his daughter today. thank you alaska airlines, for doing the right thing. the public statement on your facebook page, semi-blamed this man, suffering from parksinsons, by suggesting it was his fault he didn't get on the plane because he attempted to take his oversize luggage with him despite being told he should not...

here is my response to that thought:

alaska airlines. thank you for helping this man find his way to his daughter. that was the right thing to do. life is complicated, mistakes are made. humility and repair are always welcome responses. good for you all.

i would caution you about the factual parts of your statement, however... his missing his flight the day before was not a bi-product of his refusal to "not leave his luggage behind"-- he did have oversize luggage, and he was first "ignored" by an agent who decided he didn't get in line on time, and then he was "offered" the chance to get on the plane for a trip that would be an extended period of time- without his luggage-- which most likely had medicines and other essentials he could not leave behind.

the agent who sent him off with his oversize luggage, to be left behind, had me speaking to her throughout his late "check in" process, urging her to "give him extra help" because he was clearly, cognitively impaired (and we were certain he wouldn't fully comprehend what was being said to him)...

my wife and i predicted the events that occurred at security because of this. and if we could predict it, surely your agents could have as well? the truth is, no one stepped up to help these people, even though it was clear they needed extra help.

and the person ... (who) was managing these people backed their comments and behavior by telling me that there were "laws preventing him from providing special treatment to any passenger-- that his staff was right in treating this man like any other passenger." i understand that (he) has suggested, internally, to you all, that what he really meant by this comment, was that his staff has been trained to treat every customer "with an equal measure of respect."

this is a horrible spin. for all of us who were there, we witnessed only a lack of respect, a lack of compassion, a lack of effort to assist this man. fwiw-- sensitivity training is the VERY LEAST thing that should happen for the staff in redmond, oregon.

(Clark also clarified that the woman with the intended passenger was not traveling with him, only helping him to make the flight.)

--

Later, Clark sent this statement to KTVZ.COM:

it was never my intention to post a facebook narrative about a sad event at the airport, and to have it go viral.

my family and i witnessed a man with parkinsons disease be treated with disregard by the alaska/horizon staff, preventing him from making his flight to see his daughter. their acts of indifference were overt and without care. i brought it to the attention of several counter staff, that this man needed additional help, that he was facing one challenge or another, (and his girlfriend had her own obvious challenges that turned out to be MS) and it appeared as though my requests were irritating to the counter staff at best.

it was in the context of this question, from me to the on-duty manager...

"why was your staff telling me that everyone has to be treated the same way instead of helping this man with his clear disability"-- his response-- (and i wrote this down on site) "by law, we have to treat everyone exactly the same."

today, the airlines did the right thing and flew this man to see his daughter-- as the man had expressed to me this trip was a "bucket list" item of his.

and still, the statement on their facebook page, which blame the man suffering from parkinsons, and and his inability to navigate security with some oversize luggage he possessed (after being told he couldn't get on the plane with his luggage) seem to tell the more authentic way that alaska airlines is reacting to this circumstance. in a phone conversation with me, one of their representatives indicated to me that mr. cook (the redmond airport staff manager) had communicated to him that "it was all a big misunderstanding." that by saying "everyone is to be treated exactly the same," what they really meant by that was that "everyone should be treated with the same measurement of respect."

(The Redmond manager) is spinning this quote. this man and his girlfriend, no matter their back story, no matter their challenges, deserved to be treated with respect, deserved to be assisted in an intuitive sort of way that would allow him to board his plane-- and barring that, one of the counter employees should have listened to my urgings-- that they be treated with extra care, because it was clear they needed extra help. instead, collectively, they spoke of their "everyone has to be treated exactly alike" mantra, and ignored these people's basic needs.

it was sad. tragic even.

the hundreds and thousands of folks who have responded to the story, however, show that the best of humanity is alive and well. that light exists. that accountability is possible.

it is my greatest hope that this man will enjoy his time with his daughter, and that management with alaska airlines/horizon air will review their policies and provide additional sensitivity training to it's staff in redmond.

---

And Saturday night's update by the airline:

Update on Our Redmond Passenger
by Alaska Airlines on Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 8:49pm ·

We would like to share one last update about our customer who was traveling to see his daughter. We appreciate the community's concern about this passenger's welfare. Please know that we fly a variety of travelers with different needs and provide a variety of services for them every day. Our employees stand ready to assist any customer needing assistance. While we're not allowed to ask if a passenger has a disability, which would violate their civil rights, we can ask if they have special needs we can help with.

In this case, our customer arrived late and didn't request our assistance or let us know of any disabilities. He was also exhibiting signs of inebriation and smelled of alcohol, something we were reluctant to share from an internal report issued immediately after this customer left the airport. We are doing so now to provide some additional background on what drove our perspective on the situation.

Our customer is now at his alternate destination where he said he would be meeting his daughter. And we are conducting a thorough review and follow-up. We're in the preliminary stage of our review and will respond directly to the customer within 10 days.

We appreciate everyone’s patience while we conclude our review. Thank you for your understanding.

---

Late Saturday night, Clark posted a statement by his wife, Tiffany, on Alaska Airline's page:

I've waited to post as I was hoping Alaska Airlines would have done the right thing by electing the humble service path and standing by their customers.

This man was not drunk. In any way. There were 20 people in line with us, a dozen of whom were standing in line with us, with this man, for over 20 minutes while we waited for someone to return to the counter.

Alaska's internal investigation, stopped internally. These staff members in Redmond care more about their code, than they do about a human in need. And corporate just sent a message that they care more about upholding the code and the people behind the code, then they do the human being. It's incredibly sad that this disabled man, who has Parkinson's, who does exhibit traits that are similar to someone who has lost control of their faculties while being under the influence of a substance, is not only crazy but incredibly irresponsible.

No more Alaska for me, I'm sad to say. I've enjoyed the airlines branding for years, and love that they are in Redmond. I also was very optimistic that they would do the right thing and realize that this situation raised an major service issue in their organization, that they could address immediately and elegantly. Instead, we've been contacted by people today from Alaska Airlines who were working hard to save face and figure their way out.

This is a Northwest brand, supposedly by the people, for the people. They've done a very good job of branding, and a poor job of living the brand. Always a test during challenging moments.

Alaska, I was the 5th person behind this gentleman and you now know my account of the story. He was not inebriated. You have the times of everyone that checked in between 11:40am and 12:20pm on August 3rd. Start asking the people on the other side of the counter what happened and who this man was.

~ Tiffany Clark