Monday, October 19, 2015

Alaska Airlines Testing New Boarding Procedure

Airlines are on a never-ending quest to come up with the perfect, most efficient process to board passengers, and it seems like Alaska Airlines is trying something out.

Passing through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) this weekend, I noticed that a few of the gates in the "N" terminal had new signage and ropes which marked multiple boarding lanes. United and Delta use a similar system to try to sort out the boarding masses.
The new, experimental signs at SeaTac's Gate N3.
There were three lanes indicated:

  • A "Priority Lane";
  • Rows 20-33; and
  • Rows 6-19.

The Priority Lane sign had a further note, "Join us here when we call your group." With this last bit, Alaska had decided to lump all the priority boarding passengers into one late, which really isn't unlike the "First Class/MVP" lane right now; this new system simply pre-organized the economy passengers into two groups.

As for the actual execution of our full flight, things seemed to work in sorting the economy passengers, but there was a bit of confusion for the Priority lane.

Our flight to Los Angeles was delayed by 15 minutes; by the time boarding was announced, about 75 passengers were already in queue, mostly in one of the two economy boarding lines extending down the concourse.

There were about 15 passengers milling around in the Priority lane. The overhead gate monitor displayed the boarding groups and when they were boarding.

First class was called, and folks sorted themselves out, some shuffled up to the gate, while others stayed where they were.

About five seconds later, boarding was called for top- and mid-tier elites. This was my cue to take a small step forward, and it seemed that I was already behind some fellow elites.

Then five seconds later everyone else (lower-tier elites, Preferred Seat passengers) was asked to join the line.

I'm not sure if this quick succession of boarding calls was part of the new process, or the gate agent trying to expedite boarding because of the short delay, or some other reason, but it caused everyone in the Priority lane to "freeze" in place and basically board in the order they had originally lined up. No body walked backwards to the end of the line.
The current boarding area signs.

From my vantage point in Row 6, it seems like the goal of getting the rear of the plane seated first was accomplished. However, the entire boarding process itself didn't seem to be any shorter, and in fact seemed a bit longer than usual.

Our flight ultimately landed 30 minutes late, which I can't attribute to the new boarding process. I did appreciate that folks were lined up instead of as one big bottlenecked crowd, but I'm hoping that Priority boarding isn't what I actually experienced.

I'm glad Alaska is experimenting in hopes of creating a better system, I'm just not sure if what I saw was particularly innovative nor goal-accomplishing.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Alaska Flight from Newark Diverts Due to Smoking Credit Card Reader

An Alaska Airlines 737 parked at John Wayne Airport
On Monday, an Alaska Airlines flight from Newark bound for Seattle had to divert to Buffalo for an emergency landing because of smoke reported in the passenger cabin.

According to a statement from the airline, a malfunctioning credit card reader on board Flight 17, operated by a Boeing 737-900ER, started producing the smoke. A flight attendant took it to the back galley, placed the the device into a trash bin to contain it, and used a fire extinguisher to suppress any possible fire, while the flight crew declared an emergency and prepared to divert. There were no flames from the device, and the plane landed without incident at 8:15am ET with 181 passengers and six crew members on board.

No injuries or fire damage to the aircraft were reported, though fire and emergency vehicles met the aircraft on the runway as a precaution, due to landing overweight from to a full cabin and fuel tanks for the transcontinental flight.

A passenger on board the flight posted details of the diversion as it was happening on Flyertalk, an online forum for the frequent flyer community. User "autumnmist" reported that the "[f]light attendants and pilot handled it well" and also lamented, "[s]o much for getting a solid nap in before landing in Seattle!"

We reached out to autumnmist, who asked to be identified as "J.", for more information. J. stated that the passengers were calm, mostly dozing because of the early hour and some not realizing that anything had happened until the descent started. The cabin crew announced that all passengers should be seated and prepare for landing. The captain came onto the PA system to announced that there was a small incident and that they would be landing at Buffalo out of an abundance of caution, touching down in about 17-18 minutes.

After landing, the plane was met by firefighters who inspected the galley and deemed the plane cleared to continue under its own power to the gate with passengers on board. However, the plane had to wait for approximately one hour for a gate to open up, as this was an unscheduled arrival.

At the gate, passengers were unloaded five rows at a time, to minimize the risk that the plane would tip under extra weight of fuel. Once in the terminal, the passengers were told to give the crew an hour to inspect the aircraft and determine a solution.

Because the original aircraft no longer had the required minimum number of extinguishers on board and required an inspection due to the overweight landing, a replacement plane was dispatched from Seattle to pick up any remaining passengers who chose to wait for the rescue flight back to Seattle. The replacement plane was supposed to have arrived around 4:30pm ET.

Alaska doesn't typically serve Buffalo, so some passengers were being rebooked onto other airlines to their final destinations. J. praised the efforts of the agents, given their limited resources at Buffalo, saying that the only real issue was lack of free Wifi at the airport.

J. chose to wait for the rescue flight inside the American Airlines lounge at the Buffalo airport. Others waited in the gate area; pizza was brought in to help feed the passengers while the rescue plane was en route. Around mid-afternoon, he reported that he received an email from Alaska, apologizing for the delay and telling the passengers to expect a follow-up email with a $500 credit for future Alaska Airlines travel.

"Prompt and pretty great compensation too since to me, the incident was handled as well as could be expected." J. wrote. "Last time I was on a severely delayed flight ([Delta from Chicago to New York] around Christmas time a few years ago), we were delayed from 9am to like 4pm hours and got nothing, not even food and no money either."

Alaska indicated that the devices were recently introduced, and were being immediately removed from service off all aircraft for inspection.