January 31, 2000.
It's about 5:45 pm or so, and I'm in the home stretch of my ten hour shift as a reservations and Consumer Affairs supervisor for Alaska Airlines. It had been a boring, uneventful day. A few isolated irate callers here and there, complaining about change fees, etc. Nothing really out of the ordinary.
A res agent called me, saying that a customer was hearing news about an Alaska plane that had supposedly gone down. "Nonsense," I said. "We'd have heard about something like that long before the public would!" I figured it was probably what it always was; a small plane crash in the STATE of Alaska, but the person mis-heard the report. "I haven't heard anything of the sort, so don't worry," I told the agent.
Then another one called. And another. And another still. I looked around the cavernous office for any traces of the management team, finding them all huddled in a conference room with serious looks on their faces.
After coming back to my desk, I heard more rumblings. "People are saying it was a flight from Puerto Vallarta that supposedly had trouble," agents were saying. These agents, all Alaska Airlines employees, were getting this information fed to them by their callers who were watching CNN.
"This is getting out of hand," I thought. I started to log on to CNN.com from my desk, and the following banner headline in red and white across the screen made my heart sink:
ALASKA AIRLINES JET CRASHES OFF CALIFORNIA COAST
No way! It can't be. But there it was, in big block letters on CNN's website.
I frantically started checking all our flights from Mexico heading to the U.S. Every one seemed fine...until I saw the FLIFO display for flight 261, scheduled to fly PVR
The display had been inhibited. No one could access it.
By now, agents walking by my desk could see the headline from the CNN site. Some were crying. Most were asking questions that I simply couldn't answer. All of us were in a fog, trying to gather our thoughts, process what little information we had, and try to keep it together for our customers.
Knowing that CRC (Central Reservations Control) would lock out the passenger list in the event of an aircraft incident, I tried to access 261's name list. It had been inhibited as well.
That was when I knew for certain that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Soon after, the management staff emerged from their meeting with somber looks on their faces. They began distributing the aircraft incident forms and walking everyone through the paces. Our CARE and CIRP (Compassionate Assistance Relief Effort/Critical Incident Response Program) trained employees began taking briefings directly from Corporate. Friends and family of the passengers were calling in by the hundreds. Agents took their names and contact numbers, and I began the horrible task of relaying the names of friends and relatives of those aboard to our Command Center in Seattle, who would have crisis counselors deliver the bad news.
The whole office was in a lockdown mode. Those who were scheduled to leave were now on mandatory overtime. Those who were scheduled to come in were now being called in to work early. The lucky few who slipped out before the lockdown went into effect told those who were just coming in to just turn around, call in sick, and go home. Some did. Most kept on walking and pitched in to help. The company ordered pizza and soft drinks, with management coming around to everyone individually, feeding people and asking if they needed help in any way.
About an hour into this horrible ordeal, I received a transfer from a res agent. "It's some guy, and he's REALLY pissed," she said. Upon speaking to the man, I discovered that he was a private businessman from Oklahoma City, and he has a personal 800 number for his family and friends to use. Apparently King-5 TV
in Seattle had transposed the digits of Alaska's Flight 261 Hotline, and he had received over 200 calls within the last 30 minutes thanks to their broadcast.
After apologizing profusely, I called King-5 and advised them of who I was, and the mistake they'd made. The person I spoke with said they'd correct it immediately, and asked me to hold. Next thing I knew, a producer came on the line and said, "You're a supervisor at Alaska Airlines?" When I said yes and explained why I'd called, he said, "...soooo, how do you feel about going on the air to give us more details?"
It was at that moment that I truly understood why people hated the media so much. "No, thank you. Please wait for the press conference from our Corporate offices."
I finally left the office at 11:30pm, having worked a 13 hour day. I don't remember driving home; my car went into a sort of automatic pilot, and I literally collapsed into bed after walking into my house.
The next morning is when the full scope of what had happened really hit home. We had lost customers. Friends. Co-workers.
And through all of it, people STILL managed to be jerks. Wannabe funny guys would call asking agents if we had fares from Puerto Vallarta to "just outside Los Angeles." Shrieking, hysterical women would ask our agents "so, how many babies did you kill today?" People would ask for lower fares based on the fact that they were still willing to fly us.
But for the most part, people were sympathetic and supportive. America West Airlines sent a catering van to our office, along with a big card signed by every employee in their res center. Southwest Airlines sent goodies also.
American Airlines, in what I can only say was the single most impressive display of compassion and caring I've ever seen, ordered pizza for our company. THE ENTIRE COMPANY. Systemwide, AA
prepaid for orders from Domino's Pizza and had pizzas delivered to every res center, CTO, airport ticket counter, and even our corporate office.
It was a traumatic, horrifying experience to deal with...but it also let you see people at their best, giving (as our company's "vision statement" attests) "A Work of Heart."
"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem - government IS the problem." - Ronald Reagan
Comments made here are my own and are not intended to represent the official position of Alaska Air Group