Dose of Reality: How to Truly Avoid a Travel Nightmare

It’s no doubt that travel can be a nightmare. Delays, security, baggage, TSA, cramped seats, and bad attitudes all contribute to a negative travel experience for a lot of passengers. When things don’t go according to plan, it can turn a simple cross country flight into a disaster. Media today tends to sensationalize these types of events but in reality, most of these problems could be avoided by simple knowledge and a little bit of know-how.

On Monday our local paper, the Seattle Times, posted an article about this egregious 30 hour travel delay for Alaska Airlines passengers traveling from Boston to Los Angeles. While I don’t doubt that it really sucks to be in a delayed flight situation, especially where you have to make an emergency landing, the rhetoric and bluster in this article are way out of line. Most of the complaints seem to be people complaining for the sake of complaining. I’m sure that Dominic Gates (the writer) is a very knowledgeable person, but this article takes a lot of license and makes the situation seem a lot worse than it really was.

From the Seattle Times and Tiffany Grace Devereaux

You can read the article here, but here’s the highlighted version with my commentary in red.

Plane takes off, plane makes emergency landing, passengers stuck at airport, crew goes to go get rest, passengers get put on new plane, arrive to destination late without bags, passengers wonder what happened and look for someone to scream at.

I want to take Mr. Gates’ article and provide my commentary one by one in order to provide perhaps a dose of reality and a different perspective on how things went down:

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.

(Hot cabin? In Boston? Really? Also, GOOD! I’m glad they diverted… would you want to have a fire in the airplane? I didn’t think so)
 

From the Seattle Times

 
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 one forces you to stay in an airport… you’re allowed to leave… this is New York afterall… you’re not stuck in Customs)
 
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.
 
(Obviously! It’s Buffalo, New York. There is no Alaska station here and no Alaska people EVER, not just for this flight. If you got no food, that’s your fault. This is Buffalo, New York, not Turkmenistan).
 
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.
 
(If you got back to Boston, you should have been able to request your luggage. If the bag didn’t make it to Los Angeles, this sucks, but is also an unfortunate common place among airlines)
 

Alaska Baggage Service

 
“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.
 
(What?! Why WHY would you pack medication in your checked luggage? That’s YOUR fault, not the airline… so you remembered to bring your cats but not your medicine? That’s on YOU, Mrs. Rheinstein, not Alaska Airlines)
 
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.
 
(Always keep your receipts when your luggage is lost. The airlines will pay for out of pocket expenses to buy reasonable supplies. This has happened to us on multiple occasions)
 
“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.
 
(I see nothing wrong with this, they’re getting ahead of it and offering compensation of up to $1k each. This is proper and timely)
 

Alaska Baggage Service

Alaska Baggage Service

 
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.”
 
(Really, crazy lady? Really? What kind of a horrible parent are you that you would rather them turn back and find a hub instead of taking care for the life of your child? This shows your total lack of knowledge of how LIFE works. When a plane makes an emergency landing, they don’t say “well, we’re possibly all going to BURN TO DEATH but ya know what, lets fly even farther just so we can land at a hub. What a total buffoon. Seriously).
 
Egan conceded that this was the challenge: “It wasn’t handled as it would have been if we’d had our own people there.”
 
(Of course. It’s an emergency landing. That’s why it’s an emergency. It’s not normal.)
 
After the plane landed in Buffalo and everyone deplaned to the waiting area at about 10 p.m. Saturday night, 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.
 
(And you could have ordered a pizza, got a Starbucks, a sandwich, maybe some peanuts from a Hudson News… this is Buffalo, New York. You have options!)
 

This wasn’t the airport they landed in

 
During the almost six hours spent inside the Buffalo terminal, the passengers only got 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.”
 
(To rest. It’s regulation. You can’t have pilots and flight attendants flying without rest)
 
A more 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.”
 
(I like how this was just dropped in there casually near the end of the article… the only common sense fact in the article)
 
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.
 
(Sometimes the airport is full… you can’t just unload people anywhere you want)
 

Cedar City Tarmac

 
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.
 
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.
 
(Saavy enough… perhaps… the airline isn’t REQUIRED to give you a hotel voucher, but it’s the right move.) 
 

Nines Hotel Portland Double Beds

Double Beds

 
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 night, 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.
 
(You mean, saving their lives? You can’t do that? Hmm…)
 
Alaska’s Egan said “there are definitely some things we need to look at.”

An Ounce of Prevention

 Let’s be clear. This sucked. This sucked, a lot… but I’m siding with the airline on this one. They had to make an emergency landing in a town where there was no Alaska service so things would be limited. The crew is required, by the FAA, to rest. It’s not an option, and I’m sure you’d be happy to have a well rested crew in case of another emergency.

There are PLENTY of options available to travelers who book travel, but it all depends on how you book your flight. If you paid with a debit card, you’re out of luck. Many credit cards (including many that we’ve covered before like the Chase Sapphire Preferred) offer trip interruption insurance. This insurance covers you when the unexpected happens. You could have booked yourself a hotel in your favorite app and went off to a blissful sleep.

You could have even had the airline return you on a flight of your choosing, if you know how to ask and what options are available to you. I get that it’s 10pm in Buffalo, NY so you’re not getting out that evening. There is no reason that you couldn’t have asked them to re-book you in the morning on a partner airline. Same thing for when you landed in Boston. There are a dozen or so flights from Boston to Los Angeles on a daily basis, any of which the airline would have put you on if you asked.

Boston to LAX Last Minute

The same thing would happen with food. You can have food covered by the airline or your credit card’s insurance policy. I get that its possible that at 10pm everything had closed, but there is a 24 hour diner called Hillview and also another place called the 33 Speakeasy Grill that’s open until 4am. There’s Uber in Buffalo, so you can leave the airport and go get food. This is not the middle of a desert. You have options.

Travel Insurance that many airlines sell may also cover these as well. While I’m not necessarily a fan of these as I feel they’re more restrictive than useful, this would be one of those cases where it would make sense.

I’m not heartless

Unlike the mother who was APPALLED that Alaska would land somewhere they don’t have personnel, I’m not heartless. I get that this was a very difficult situation for everyone involved, but it was not an impossible situation. You’ve got rights as a traveler, and also you’ve got rights when you pay with the correct credit card.

What would you have done in this situation? Do you feel the outrage is justified? Share your comments below!

Author: Jon Nickel-D'Andrea

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14 Comments

  1. There is no question that if a plane declares an emergency it should land as soon as possible. Nobody disputes that. Your premise here is that all of the passengers were foolish for not taking matters into their own hands. You presume that all of the passengers are frequent flyers – who know what to do in situations like this. They aren’t, they are casual flyers rightfully expecting to hear from Alaska about next steps. That is where Alaska failed. Knowing they didn’t have representatives in Buffalo, Alaska should have started by calling/emailing/texting each customer about the status. Alaska should have sent their people to Buffalo (they could have flown out too). Alaska should have made SOME accommodation for THEIR passengers; information, food, shelter. They did nothing. Don’t blame the passengers because they didn’t know “…how to ask and what options are available to you.” Blame the airline; this is not the first time Alaska has had to divert a flight to an airport where they don’t have operations. Alaska should have the playbook for situations like this, not the passengers.

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    • I don’t think you can just FLY people out to Buffalo… that’s super far from anywhere and they’re not going to get people up in the middle of the night to fly to the middle of nowhere airport.

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      • According to the article; the 6pm flight was almost 2hrs late departing (bringing it to 8pm) and then diverted 90 minutes into the flight. That would put them in BUF around 9:30pm; not exactly the middle of the night. JetBlue has a nonstop from BOS to BUF at 10:42pm. Knowing the nature of the emergency and that there was no Alaska representation at BUF Alaska should have put their people on that flight to help the passengers stuck in BUF. Alaska did make arrangements for their pilots (which is a good thing) they could have done something for their passengers.

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  2. I think most of your comments are spot on. However, it should not be up to the passengers to figure out that they can take another flight on Alaska’s dime if they do not want to wait a ridiculous 11 hrs in Boston. Yeah if it was me I’d call AS and demand to be put on AA or some other airline, but given the situation they should have been offering that to passengers. It’s not reasonable to expect that all people, especially elderly ones, are aware of their rights when it comes to flying.

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    • Perhaps, but at the same time, how much can be done when you land in the middle of nowhere?

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      • I’m talking about the following morning when they arrived in BOS and had to wait 11 hrs for the next AS flight to LAX. There were plenty of flights with other airlines they could have offered them (“There are a dozen or so flights from Boston to Los Angeles on a daily basis”). I understand it might not be possible to get them out of BUF late at night.

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  3. “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.”

    (Really, crazy lady? Really? What kind of a horrible parent are you that you would rather them turn back and find a hub instead of taking care for the life of your child? This shows your total lack of knowledge of how LIFE works. When a plane makes an emergency landing, they don’t say “well, we’re possibly all going to BURN TO DEATH but ya know what, lets fly even farther just so we can land at a hub. What a total buffoon. Seriously).
    ————————-

    This is a classic straw man argument. The “crazy lady” wasn’t mad that they made an emergency landing at a non-hub, but that the airline had no plan for such an occasion.

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  4. What would the experienced traveler do? If it were me,

    1. debate whether to spend the night in Buffalo and try to fly BUF-xxx-LAX first thing the next morning

    2. debate whether to wait and fly on the AS plane back to BOS then
    2a. arrange BOS-LAX in the am
    2b. accept BOX-LAX at 6 pm

    I would probably do 2a. 1 is a bit gutsy

    Post a Reply
  5. Some of your comments are spot on but I have to take issue with some and your tone toward people who obviously don’t know the “rules” of frequent flying is downright patronizing and smug. Of course, you know what you would do, but they didn’t. There is no need to be obnoxious about it. They were in the middle of a sucky flight with no communication. Don’t tell me you haven’t made mistakes while traveling.
    First, if you are not a frequent flyer, you wouldn’t know about some of these issues(crew rest, non-hubs etc.) and would be frustrated.
    Second, when Alaska made the diversion, they needed to communicate with passengers in some way. I understand that they had no one on the ground and the crew has to rest(though a lot of passengers probably didn’t), but they could have called, texted or sent e-mails to these passengers and explained what was happening.
    Third, your point that they weren’t forced to stay in the airport is faulty and I am surprised you would make it. If they weren’t given ANY information, they would have no idea when they were supposed to be leaving or what they were supposed to do. They wouldn’t have had boarding passes, meaning if they left they could have not gotten back through security because there were no Alaska staff to help them with that. Did you think of that? It didn’t matter that they were in New York, they had no information and no way to get back to their gate if they left.
    I have had several situations were I was simply told to stay put as information unspooled slowly or not at all. I have asked about leaving and getting rebooked and told that if I leave, I forfeit my ticket. This was an airport that no one was supposed to be at, no one had luggage, and no one had any information. How long could they have left and when did they need to be back, was not communicated.
    Fourth, the article doesn’t say they’re offering compensation, it says they are looking at offering compensation of up to $1000. Those are different things.
    Fifth, most of the restaurants would have been closed when people landed and I’m guessing by the time they deplaned, nothing would have been open so there weren’t options.

    I understand your position, but please think through your snark first. An article entitled, “What could the passengers have done?” would have been helpful as I am genuinely curious how people would have gotten back into the airport had they left without boarding passes.

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  6. Passengers were told, “Please stay put in this area, we are not sure how to proceed. One of two things will happen, either we put you back on the plane after firefighters and inspectors deem it safe or we put you on an emergency rescue plane back to Boston, we just don’t know”.

    Post a Reply
    • Were you there, Kate? I’d love to know more…

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      • Jon, you said, “I don’t think you can just FLY people out to Buffalo… that’s super far from anywhere and they’re not going to get people up in the middle of the night to fly to the middle of nowhere airport.” I don’ think flying someone to another airport would be the best use of time and resources. They could have someone assigned as a point person on the ground somewhere. They could inform customer service of the situation so that they could give people who called the latest information. They could have asked a passenger on the ground to facilitate communication. While I agree that people should keep medication in their carry-on luggage, your advice about leaving the Buffalo airport seems ill advised. Also, it’s unlikely that there was enough space on the flights you listed for most of the people to get an earlier flight out of Boston. No one was APPALLED that they did an emergency landing, just that they showed so little concern for the passengers.

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