By Chris Barnett
April 29, 2010 -- Communications consultant Ellen Paris was "really stunned" by a personalized E-mail from Alaska Airlines that apologized for a six-hour takeoff delay she endured on a 421-mile flight from Palm Springs to San Francisco. The mea culpa for the incident earlier this month included a pair of $200 ticket coupons and 1,000 extra frequent flyer points.

"It was totally unsolicited--and unexpected--because I hadn't written or called to complain," says Paris, one of 50 of 107 passengers who stuck it out not knowing if the aircraft's mechanical problem could be fixed.

Traveling with her 12-year-old daughter, Palm Desert-based Paris was skeptical. "You could see this big puddle of hydraulic fluid on the tarmac underneath the plane," she recalls. "But at least they kept us informed every 45 minutes."

The updates from Alaska weren't reassuring, she admits, but they were candid. Two options were discussed: A replacement part could be driven about 115 miles from Los Angeles to Palm Springs in Friday-night, rush-hour traffic. Or mechanics could try to fix the old part, but 40 pages of instructions would have to be faxed down from the airline's Seattle headquarters.

At that point, half the passengers on the Alaska flight bolted. United had the only other flight to San Francisco and it was booked.

Paris says Alaska decided to repair the part, assuring the remaining passengers that the flight would operate safely. "It was dark, but we could see a guy with a flashlight, reading papers and working on the hydraulic line," she remembers.

"I kept thinking, 'I hope they faxed all 40 pages, and that the wind doesn't blow any of them into the desert.' But I knew they wouldn't risk an unsafe plane. Plus they had all those paying passengers waiting in San Francisco for the return flight to Palm Springs. That's a lot of revenue."

Alaska Airlines didn't feed the stranded passengers or hand out meal coupons. Paris says a tiny airport bar was just closing and she managed to wangle an order of Buffalo wings as dinner for two.

In a day when disgruntled air travelers on the larger U.S. carriers are forced to wade through voice prompts to reach an automated complaint line or jump through other hoops, Alaska's pro-active effort is gold-plated public relations. The E-mail that Paris received, signed by customer service vice president Jeff Butler, sounded sincere enough.

So many airline communiqués are either blatantly promotional or cover-their-butt blather, but Butler acknowledged the hours wasted waiting. "While passenger safety is our highest priority, we understand your time is a valuable commodity and regret you were delayed to your destination," he wrote.

Butler also praised the mechanics for their diligence, but confessed that the "repairs took longer than expected" and "we were unable to provide you with more concrete answers when the aircraft would be ready."

He wrapped it with the coup de grace of corporate regrets: "It is never our intent to provide a level of service that does not meet our customer's highest expectations…" And Butler's intangible regret was buttressed by the tangible ticket coupons and bonus miles.

Alaska Airlines generally has an impressive on-time record. The Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report ranked the airline second among the nation's carriers with an 86.2 percent on-time arrival record for the 12 months ended February, 2010. Alaska also had the second-best on-time performance for January and February of this year.

Did Alaska Air give $200 ticket coupons and points to the passengers who defected rather than wait out the delay? Hard to say. Ray Prentice, Alaska's customer advocacy director, says staffers hand passengers an apology card to be filled out at the airport when there is a "significant disruption." Then, "we surprise and delight them."

Passengers who didn't stick around long enough for an apology card probably didn't get the make-good. But Prentice says the passenger list was scanned and members of Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan "typically get" an extra 1,000 points in their account. As for the lack of food, Prentice says Alaska's decision to feed inconvenienced passengers is "situational."

Moreover, Alaska's actions in this case are not an iron-clad policy guarantee about flight disruptions. Certain delays might net only extra frequent flyer points, not necessarily coupons redeemable for flights.

Still, Alaska's fast reach-out policy on flights delayed by aircraft problems is common sense, not quantum physics.

ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

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