The plight of a disabled man trying to board a plane from Redmond, Ore. to Bellingham sparked an on-line fury against Alaska and Horizon Airlines via social media.
Now the president of Horizon is publicly apologizing for the man's treatment.
The case illustrates how consumers are getting a new voice and companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to their on-line reputations.
It started Friday when Cameron Clark of Bend Oregon posted "sad story" on his Facebook page, writing that he'd witnessed "the worst of humanity" a "disabled/mentally and physically challenged couple" left stranded at a Redmond airport because Alaska ticket agents wouldn't help them.
The man was trying to get to Bellingham to visit his daughter.
Alaska responded on its own Facebook page, at first blaming the man for trying to board with oversized luggage, then saying he'd exhibited signs of inebriation and smelled of alcohol.
But by Monday afternoon, the president of Horizon Air, which is run by Alaska, had posted a personal apology.
The case highlights the changing relationship between consumers and corporations. In this case it wasn't even the customer who'd been wronged who complained. But with the story exploding on Facebook, Alaska acted quickly to manage its on line reputation.
Ron Schott is a social media strategist for Spring Creek Group. From a loft in Seattle's Pioneer Square, he and his colleagues help companies from Fortune 500 behemoths to small nonprofits interact with customers and manage their image.
He says the traditional approach of staying silent, or being slow to answer criticism no longer makes sense in the digital age.
"Even if a Brand screws up, coming forward and saying you know you're right, we screwed up. We did wrong, here's how we fixed it and here's how we're gonna make sure it doesn't happen again. That at the end of the day is the best thing a consumer wants to see,” he said.
Alaska conceded "we could have and should have handled the situation better.” They refunded the flights and offered free tickets so the man can visit his daughter again later.
It’s an example of consumers gaining a new voice and companies hearing them.
"To be able to have this inside track to someone there who is listening and is going to interact with me, that at the end of the day is really exciting,” said Schott.
Alaska also says it's partnered with Open Doors, a disability advocacy group, to discuss ways to be more sensitive to the needs of disabled travelers. The airline asks anyone with special needs to disclose that information BEFORE arriving at the airport if possible.
Glenn Johnson, President of Horizon Air, issued a statement on the Alaska Airlines Facebook page, saying
"I've seen a lot of concern by our customers about the treatment of the gentleman who flew out of Redmond, Oregon, to see his daughter. Now that we've been able to largely complete our review, which I've been overseeing throughout the weekend, I'd like to share some information with you. 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.
I’m happy to report the gentleman has been able to visit with his daughter after arriving at his destination before noon on Saturday. We are providing him with complimentary round trip flights for this trip and have offered free tickets for another visit down the road. We're also working with Open Doors Organization, a disability advocacy group that focuses on travel issues, to learn from this customer’s experience and to help us with our ongoing care for passengers with disabilities. Alaska and Horizon have partnered with various disability organizations for years to help our employees better serve our customers.
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. The information we've gathered during our review will certainly improve our efforts going forward. I'd like to say again that we're sorry for the experience of this customer and thank everyone who has brought this to our attention."