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Originally published October 8, 2012 at 10:59 AM | Page modified October 11, 2012 at 1:38 PM

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Alaska Airlines: Our ticketing system up and running again

The airline had to cancel 78 Alaska and Horizon Air flights, delaying some 6,800 passengers. The biggest delays were at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but flights were "significantly delayed" across its 64-airport network.

Seattle Times staff reporter

By the numbers

6,800

The estimated number of passengers affected by flight cancellations

78

The number of cancellations of Alaska Air and Horizon flights

To get a refund

CUSTOMERS WHOSE travel plans were disrupted are advised to contact Alaska Airlines' Customer Care team at bit.ly/RLRhxB for compensation. Those without access to the Web can call 800-654-5669. More details are available at www.alaskaair.com.
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We live in the digital age, but for five hours Monday, Alaska Airlines' computerized ticketing system was shut down by old-fashioned accidents, one severed cable in the Midwest and another between Tacoma and Portland.

The airline had to cancel 78 Alaska and Horizon Air flights, delaying some 6,800 passengers. The biggest delays were at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but flights were "significantly delayed" across its 64-airport network.

At the ticket counter on Monday morning, Russ Taylor Jr. waited at the head of the line with his 9-year-old grandson, Ayden Quinn.

They had left the town of Concrete, Skagit County, at 5 a.m. to bring Ayden to Sea-Tac for a flight home to Hawaii. They got to the ticket counter at 7:30 and were next up to check in when the system crashed. They stood there at the head of the line for the next 3 ½ hours with no information as to what was to happen.

"We don't know any more than when we first got here," said Taylor. An Alaska agent at the counter said she could manually write boarding passes, but not for Ayden because minors flying alone had to be checked through the computer system.

Ayden remained perky. "They just keep saying, 'Thank you for your patience,' " he said. "They brought us water. That's their way of telling us we'll be here awhile."

The airline said customers who had bought tickets for Oct. 8 or Oct. 9 could cancel their flights and be refunded their unflown airfare.

Or they could rebook the same itinerary before Oct. 22 at no charge as long as their tickets were exchanged or refunded by Tuesday.

On Monday night, the airline said it was "fixing" its website to change a statement that passengers rebooking flights would be charged any difference in fare.

Marianne Lindsey, spokeswoman for Alaska, said that passengers rebooking flights would not be charged a change fee, nor any difference in fare price.

"The only exception is that we're not going to put you in first class if you had booked on coach," said Lindsey.

By early afternoon Monday, as service was being restored, passengers at Sea-Tac seemed more resigned than anything else.

"You just have to accept it. I'm just here with the rest of the masses, waiting," said Carolee Mayne, whose flight to Los Angeles had been canceled and who was standing patiently in line to find out about getting rebooked. "I feel bad for the employees here."

Alaska personnel, some with clipboards, made their way through the 200 to 300 passengers at the check-in area. They passed out snack containers with the label, "Thank you for your patience and understanding as we work to get you to your destination today."

The computer problems began when a Sprint fiber-optic cable running in the ground by railroad tracks between Chicago and Milwaukee was accidentally cut early Monday morning during maintenance work, said Crystal Davis, crisis communication manager for Sprint. The cable carried Alaska Airline's connection to the Sabre ticketing system.

The Sprint spokeswoman said when a cable is cut, the digital traffic is automatically rerouted.

But then, said Davis, the overhead fiber-optic cable between Tacoma and Portland that had been rerouting the Sabre connection was also cut.

"It could have been a semitruck," she said. "We don't know exactly."

The digital age is quite vulnerable to such accidents, said University of Washington electrical-engineering professor Martin Afromowitz, who is an expert on fiber optics.

He cited how in 2008, undersea cables in the Mediterranean Sea were snapped, causing Internet havoc.

"There is still an infrastructure that needs to be there, under the streets, somebody's backyard, whatever. They're vulnerable," said Afromowitz.

Davis said that the cut along the railroad line had been repaired, but not the other one.

Meanwhile, on the Facebook page for Alaska Airlines, customers vented freely.

There was Michael from Boise Junction, Idaho:

"Thanks for everything today, you have intrigued me to NEVER fly with you again. Terrible customer service, no help from anyone, canceled flights, delayed flights, extremely long phone calls and no compensation for the trouble. AND trying to make me pay for one checked bag, I thought MVP Gold meant something? Absolutely horrible! Goodbye."

In today's social-media age, the airline quickly responded. Elliott from the airline posted:

"Michael: I'm very sorry about your travel disruption today. I hope you contacted one of our customer care folks so they could issue the appropriate compensation. I hope you'll give us another chance to make up for this trip in the future."

Material from Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates, Times news researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf, and The Associated Press was used in this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com.

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