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Originally published October 27, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Page modified October 29, 2012 at 9:55 AM

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The fallout, and lessons, of Alaska Airlines' meltdown

Lessons to learn from Alaska Airlines' recent computer meltdown.

Special to The Seattle Times

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If I were grading Alaska Airlines on how it handled a digital meltdown that disrupted travel for thousands of passengers earlier this month, I'd give the airline a D for communication and a B+ for compensation.

When its computer system was brought down by two severed fiber-optic cables, the airline suffered a communications breakdown with its own staff that drew almost as much flak as the delays and cancellations that affected nearly 8,000 travelers on Oct. 8.

"They were nice. They tried to accommodate the passengers as best they could, but they basically had zero information," said Whidbey Island businessman Bob Frause. He said he found out more by checking news reports on his phone than he did from asking Alaska's agents at Sea-Tac Airport.

When Rebecca and Michael Wissink, of Surrey, B.C., arrived at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas at noon, "there was neither signage, nor announcements about any delays," they wrote in a letter to the airline. "While in the lineup we learned from other customers that another flight to Seattle had been canceled and that our flight was delayed."

Unable to send messages or emails, the airline used phones and fax machines to communicate with employees who were busy writing out tickets by hand and using bull horns to make announcements.

"As a result, our communication to customers at the airports was sporadic," said Alaska spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey.

Ben Minicucci, Alaska's executive vice president of operations, makes no excuses: "We owe it to our passengers to do better, and our airport-management team is committed to having a better plan going forward."

Compensation for passengers

When it came to compensating passengers for the disruptions, Alaska smartly decided to let customer goodwill trump its policies.

Hard to believe, but there are no U.S. laws requiring airlines to do anything other than offer refunds for canceled flights or rebooking on the next available flight.

Written into some Contracts of Carriage, legal documents posted on U.S. airlines' websites, is a promise to provide a hotel room if a flight is canceled for a mechanical problem or other routine reason. But when problems are due to weather, riots, strikes or any unforeseen event the airlines consider out of their control, they're off the hook.

Alaska bent its rules.

"In the case of a traveler needing to get where they were going that day, we booked them on another airline," Lindsey said. "If a traveler had to overnight to catch a flight the next day, we provided accommodations and meals. If a traveler had a long day at the airport, we provided a free meal." Others got vouchers fordiscounts on future travel.

The Wissinks, delayed more than 24 hours getting home from Las Vegas, first received a $100 voucher, but Alaska increased it to $300 after they sent their letter outlining complaints about rude treatment and lost luggage.

Be prepared

Situations such as Alaska's are frustrating, and the approaching holiday-travel season makes delays and cancellations more likely. Some strategies for minimizing the hassles:

• Airlines hardly ever shell out cash compensation, except as a refund for a canceled flight or for involuntary bumping. Travel insurance is best for recovering monetary losses (for prepaid hotels or tours, for example).

• If you've got a smartphone, use it. Call a reservations agent at the same time you're standing in line to rebook. Check on what other airlines fly the same route. Having that information can save time and make it easier for an agent to rebook you. Check Twitter and Facebook for updates and what other passengers are saying.

• Take a carry-on bag with essentials, such as medication, in case of cancellations of missed connections. • Be patient. "Being nice" advises the consumer organization Flyersrights.org, "will get you better treatment."

Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance writer. Contact her at travel@carolpucci.com. Web/blog: www.carolpucci.com

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Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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