At congressional hearing, Alaska Airlines promises compensation for unhappy customers

WASHINGTON — An Alaska Airlines executive testifying at a congressional hearing on airline service Tuesday promised that employees will be more empowered to compensate unhappy fliers and customer service agreements will be clearer.

Joseph Sprague, Alaska's senior vice president for external relations, joined executives from several airlines, including United, Delta and American, before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for a dressing down by congressmen unhappy with airline customer service. The hearing was a response to the dragging of a man off a United Airlines flight.

The passenger's videotaped removal from the plane and his resulting injuries sparked outrage worldwide. Alaska Airlines was far from the focus of Tuesday's hearing and largely escaped specific complaints. But Alaska joined with the group in promising changes to better accommodate customers.

Alaska Airlines is the nation's fifth largest airline and employs 19,000 people and 280 planes, according to the company.

Alaska plans to update its policies to make it "explicit" that employees are "empowered" with discretion over compensation for fliers who aren't getting the service they hoped, Sprague said.

[American arrested after brawling on plane about to leave Tokyo]

Most of the wrath in the hearing was directed by frequent-flier congressmen at the airlines that peeve them.


Though he is a member of the committee, Alaska Rep. Don Young didn't swing by the hourslong hearing to add his complaints to the list. (Young has, on occasion, said that the long flights to and from Alaska are one of the least appealing parts of his job.)

Lawmakers' complaints were many: overbooking; smaller seats with little legroom; limited route options; hostile counter clerks and flight attendants; sparse in-flight meals; baggage fees; flight cancellations; lack of information at airports; planes sitting on runways; and ticket price transparency.

Sprague's answers seemed to satisfy the lawmakers more than most.

"We would acknowledge ours is too long," he said of Alaska Airlines' carrier agreement — the pages of information and fine print that customers must agree to when buying a ticket (and which most never read).

"We're going to move to a much shorter and more efficient contract of carrier," Sprague said.

He said the issue arose when the company acquired Virgin Airlines and saw how much shorter and more efficient Virgin's was. Sprague said Alaska's goal is to get it down to one page.

The number of Alaska Airlines customers bumped off flights is far lower than that of other national carriers, Sprague testified. And if passengers are bumped, seat assignments are doled out based on who was last to check in for the flight, not on how much they paid for the seat.

In 2016, an average of just 4 in 100,000 Alaska Airlines customers were denied boarding, Sprague said.

But the company is looking to bring down that number and is altering its policies to make clear that customer service employees have the power to adjust compensation so customers agree to be bumped to another flight.

"Rather than put in place a hard upper limit (on spending), we believe this discretionary approach will be effective," Sprague testified. All customer service employees also now have "mobile devices" that provide up-to-date information on passengers and tools to address service problems, he said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.