SEATAC, Wash. (AP) - In the frantic hours following the crash of Flight 261, Alaska Airlines called in counselors for the victims' families, hurried its CEO to Los Angeles for a news conference, and quickly assembled a list of victims.
That list, released within 12 hours, included 37 employees and their
friends and relatives, a devastating loss for a company that hadn't suffered a major accident in a quarter century.
Despite their own grief, Alaska executives marshaled a response to Monday's crash that many are calling exemplary.
"They really seem to have been prepared," said Larry Dobrow, news editor for PRWeek, a public relations industry newspaper. "I think they've done extremely well, considering the nature of what we're talking about here."
Some airlines have been criticized for a weak response in the hours, days and months after a crash - in how they treat victims' families and share information with those yearning to hear what happened to loved ones.
But Alaska Airlines (ALK: news, msgs) tried to keep the families of the 88 victims informed.
"Our first job is to take care of the families, but the thing that they tend to want most is information," said company spokesman Jack Evans. "And we decided early on in our contingency planning to share as much of it as we could with the families and the public."
Soon after the crash, the Seattle-based airline stripped down its Web site to report news on the tragedy, and Evans started giving the first of almost hourly reports on the disaster.
At about the same time, more than 180 volunteers arrived in Los Angeles as part of a special team to work with the 135 family members there, practically one-on-one. All of the family members' rooms, meals and incidentals were paid for, as required by federal law, and Alaska took additional steps to keep them updated, Evans said.
Alaska has received praise from the families and from the American Red Cross as the investigation continues.
Officials at the airline had probably learned from perceived failures of timing or
compassion in the reaction to the crash of TWA Flight 800.
"TWA was almost the manual on how not to do things," Dobrow said of the 1996 crash off Long Island, which left many family members angry at the airline's handling of the tragedy. "I don't think most airlines would admit to it, but they looked at TWA and learned a lot about what they shouldn't do."
Family members of Flight 800 victims complained of being left alone without information or counseling for days. They said the airline was not providing them with updates on the investigation. And the airline refused to give the victims' families reduced airfares to travel to New York in February 1997 for their first look at the wreckage.
TWA (TWA: news, msgs) said it had already spent roughly $13 million providing assistance.
In contrast, Dobrow praised Alaska CEO John Kelly for being out in the open and
available to families and the media. That openness could also serve the company in the long run.
"As tough as it sounds, they have to do this not only to do right by the people involved, but to protect their future business," Dobrow said.