12th anniversary of Alaska Flight 261

A personal word from your Webmaster:

Like thousands of others, 12 years ago today I was horrified to learn of the crash of Alaska Flight 261.

The plane left from Puerto Vallarta, the same day my parents flew home from there on Alaska. It is sheer luck they weren’t on that plane. Other people I knew weren’t so lucky.

I was in Mexico myself at the time. I almost didn’t get there, thanks again to Alaska and their POS MD-80s. My flight from Seattle 11 days earlier experienced a problem so severe on take-off that we were forced to make an immediate emergency landing. Something literally blew at the back of the plane. We heard several loud bangs, like minor explosions, and the plane lurched to the right. We all thought we were going to be tarmac dust. Even the stews were fighting back tears, while trying to reassure the passengers. I’d already written my family a good-bye note with a Sharpie on the drop-down tray. One of the stews asked me to come with her to the back of the plane, just in case they needed help forcing the rear door open. She was crying about her two young children she feared would soon be motherless.

Nothing like looking out the window and seeing the runway lined with fire engines and emergency vehicles. We were all lucky to make it off that plane in one piece, and at least Alaska gave me free drinks on the replacement flight.

But 11 days later, another piece-of-crap Alaska MD-80 flipped upside down and killed 88 people. I tried to get some answers. Ten years later I’m still waiting for them.

1. The FAA told me that Alaska filed a “minor” incident report on my plane’s problem. They never went into specifics.

2. After Flight 261 crashed, CBS News reported that “several loud bangs were heard coming from the back of the plane” before the crash. That’s EXACTLY the sound we heard on my plane.

3. For ten years I’ve been trying to find out if my plane was the same as the one used for Flight 261. Nobody’s talking.

4. Twelve years ago I wrote everyone I knew in the Seattle media, asking them to chase this info down. I gave them plenty of specifics. Not a single one of them ever answered me.

5. Alaska made a big deal in August 2008 when they “retired” their last MD-80. That would be about 8 years too late for the victims of Flight 261. Those death traps should have been permanently grounded at least ten years earlier, but Alaska kept flying them long after it was clear they had recurring problems. In the few days and weeks after Flight 261 crashed, an MD-80 pulled into SFO with an engine on fire. In Dallas, another MD-80 full of people nearly plowed up a field.

And btw, American Airlines still loves its MD-80s. Want to have some fun? Search “American Airlines MD 80 emergency” and look at the huge list of events that comes up. For example: On February 22, 2008, a Stage 1 alert was declared at MIA after a Chicago-bound MD-80 developed mechanical problems leaving Palm Beach. On January 10, 2012, an American MD-80 bound from Mexico to North Texas made an emergency landing in El Paso. On January 28, 2012, an engine failed on a flight to Seattle, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Boise. How many more reasons do you need to NOT fly American and its decrepit fleet of garbage scows?

I’ve saved all my e-mails and letters regarding Flight 261. I will try to post them here.

Meanwhile, here’s a ten year anniversary story from the Seattle Times. Please take some time to read how the surviving friends and families have had to deal with their loss.

Only a brief passing mention is made of Tom and Peggy Stockley, who were killed on 261. Tom had been the wine writer at the Times for years, an exceedingly credible journalist whose reviews and opinions were highly regarded by consumers and wine industry people alike. There is a memorial bench dedicated to the Stockleys at the foot of East Lynn Street in Seattle, looking out over Lake Union. It’s right across the street from Pete’s Market, one of Seattle’s better known wine outlets.

The tag at the end of the Times article says, “Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report…” Miletich and I worked together at the Bellevue Journal-American 30+ years ago. He was one of the first media people I contacted about 261. He was also one of those who didn’t respond.


For the record, I did not start this web site because of Flight 261. That tragedy was only one in the ongoing saga of Alaska’s poor service, cheap shortcuts, shoddy maintenance and insults ranging from outrageous baggage fees to “random” personal searches and — this really happened — being told that I could not have a seat on a plane because I would “imbalance the load.” I weigh 170 lbs and had one 30-lb. bag.

There are many good people who work for this airline, and they try hard to make things right. Sometimes they succeed, despite all odds. But there are also unmitigated, greedy, bean-counting assholes who run this airline, and gate agents in Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Burbank (among others) who are either ragingly incompetent or criminally insane. You can be the nicest, most accommodating passenger in the world (which is me 99.9% of the time) and still have some pre-menstrual, man-hating, honeybunch on a bender glare at you and sneer, “Sir, if you’re going to be argumentative I’m going to have to call security!”

Yeah, well, F you, too, bizzatch! Next time go ahead and call. Let’s see what they say when I tell them YOU’RE the one with the attitude problem.

I’ve had it with Alaska’s abusive control freaks, fools and idiots who’ve risen to the level of their own incompetence. (Which, in some cases, doesn’t take much effort.) And I’ll bet lots of you have, too.


12th anniversary of Alaska Flight 261

AK Follies

From our pal Ron Judd at the Seattle Times:

Winglet Roulette: Once again, an Alaska Airlines jet has collided with another parked jet on a concourse at Sea-Tac Airport. It raises all sorts of alarming questions, chief among them: What in the world is my mom doing driving jets at Sea-Tac?

Speaking Of Alaska: The Seattle-based airline boasts that it’s “highest in customer satisfaction among network carriers in North America.” It’s sort of like being the most popular former Saddam Hussein crony in Iraq.

AK Follies

Judges revive suit by passengers booted from Alaska flight

July 30, 2010


A federal judge improperly dismissed a lawsuit by Egyptian and Brazilian passengers booted off an Alaska Airlines flight in 2003, an appeals panel ruled Friday.

The ruling is significant as it is, according to the majority ruling, the first U.S. case and the second anywhere to interpret the 1963 Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft. That treaty authorizes pilots to forcibly restrain and boot off passengers and deliver them to law enforcement, and grants airlines immunity from liability if pilots have reasonable grounds to support their actions.

“We are mindful of the claims … that flight commanders must be given wide latitude in making decisions to preserve safety and orderly conduct aboard an aircraft in flight,” Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the ruling. “But passengers also have a legitimate interest in being treated fairly and with dignity; they are, after all, captives of the airline for the duration of the flight, and may be stranded far from home if not allowed to continue on the flight they have paid for.”

Reacting to the ruling Friday, Gilbert Gaynor, a lawyer for the passengers, said: “It really is a reminder to the airline industry that passengers are human beings and that, while security is very important and the law recognizes that security is very important, you still have to treat people reasonably, and that includes people from other cultures.”

Alaska Airlines, which is based in Seattle, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit stems from a Sept. 29, 2003, flight from Vancouver, B.C., to Las Vegas. A group of nine — Egyptian businessmen headed to a convention to meet with a manufacturer of natural-gas equipment, plus their wives and a Brazilian fiancee — took up all but three first-class seats.

Here’s the account from the group and a separate American passenger providing the only independent version:

Flight attendants told Egyptian passengers who stood to stretch that they couldn’t stand outside the flight deck

One flight attendant told passenger Reda Ginena, who complained of back and circulation problems, that he could stand in the rear of the first-class cabin. But then another flight attendant, Robin Duus, rudely told him to sit down, continued to hector him after he did so and then ordered him to fill out an inflight disturbance report, which was designed to be filled out by flight crew, not passengers.

When the Ginena pointed out that he wasn’t supposed to fill out the form, Duus started pacing and yelling. When Ginana’s wife complained of this treatment, Duus thrust an inflight disturbance report at her and then called to the flight deck to have the pilots land the aircraft.

The American passenger said Duus “had been glaring at (the Egyptian) group every time she passed through the first class cabin. She wasn’t looking at me like that.”

The pilots diverted to Reno, where police and Transportation Security Administration officials removed the group but, despite the entreaties of Captain Michel Swanigan, declined to arrest them and, in fact, cleared them to continue flying.

Swanigan refused to reboard the group, but the passengers were able to fly to Las Vegas on American West, even though Alaska urged America West not to allow them to aboard.

After the Alaska flight took off again, a flight attendant announced to the remaining passengers that plaintiffs had interfered with the flight crew and were responsible for the diversion. Following the incident, Alaska issued a statement saying “many of us feel that we were let down because these people were not arrested and also puzzled and dismayed” that the group was able to fly on America West.

Alaska also reported the group to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, leading FBI agents to publicly detain the businessmen on the afternoon of their rescheduled meeting with the natural-gas equipment maker.

The passengers’ version of events is important because a judge must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs in deciding whether to dismiss a lawsuit in summary judgment.

U.S. District Judge Robert Clive Jones of Nevada granted Alaska Airlines summary judgment in dismissing the passengers’ claims for damages due to delay under the 1929 Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules Relating to International Carriage by Air. Jones ruled that the 1963 convention gave the airline immunity to the claims.

But Kozinski, writing for himself and Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith, said that the evidence, viewed in light most favorable to the plaintiffs, could lead a jury to conclude the captain did not have reasonable grounds to believe that plaintiffs posed a threat to the security or order of the aircraft.

Furthermore, international convention only allows pilots on international flights to deliver passengers to police, as Swanigan did, if he has reasonable ground to believe they have committed a crime, the judges noted. “Viewing plaintiffs’ version of the facts, they did absolutely nothing that anyone could reasonably believe was criminal.”

Concluding, the judges wrote:

A jury may reasonably conclude that there was no emergency here. None of the passengers had made any threats, brandished a weapon or touched a flight attendant. Nor had any of the flight crew informed the captain that any of the passengers had done anything to endanger the plane. Even assuming the truth of everything that Captain Swanigan and his crew now say happened, a jury could conclude that the captain acted unreasonably in diverting the plane to Reno, forcing plaintiffs to disembark, turning them over to the authorities and then refusing to let them re-board the flight after the police had cleared them. …
The record contains substantial evidence that would support a jury’s finding that Captain Swanigan and his crew acted unreasonably toward the plaintiffs.

In a partial dissent, District Judge S. James Otero argued the standard should be whether the captain’s actions were arbitrary and capricious, not unreasonable.

Swanigan’s decision to divert the jet to Reno was not arbitrary or capricious, and was properly dismissed by Jones, Otero wrote. He said the captain’s decision to have the group removed from the jet in Reno should go to trial, but using the arbitrary and capricious standard.

All three judges agreed that Jones properly ruled that defamation claims regarding statements Swanigan and other crew members gave to police and the TSA in Reno were not allowed under international treaty because they were part of the disembarkation process. But the appeals judges also agreed in reversing Jones’ dismissal of defamation claims regarding comments a flight attendant made after the passengers were gone.

Finally, the three judges upheld Jones’ dismissal of seven new defamation claims based on statements Alaska’s employees made to America West Airlines, to the Joint Terrorism Task Force and in internal newsletters.

The judges agreed that the plaintiffs brought their motion to file the supplemental complaint under the wrong rule. They said it’s up to the trial judge whether to allow the passengers to refile the motion correctly.

The case drew briefs from Egypt and the U.S. Department of Justice, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Air Line Pilots Association, International Air Transport Association and Air Transport Association of America.

Judges revive suit by passengers booted from Alaska flight

“Kind of a bang” — American still in the flying casket business

“American Airlines still loves its MD-80s, an excellent reason to never fly American.”

I posted that just two days ago. And as if on cue, another American Airlines Flying Casket MD-80 pulled up lame today. Worse, it exhibited the exact symptoms that both Alaska 261 and my January 2000 flight experienced.

“…Passengers and crew heard “kind of a bang” and the plane lost cabin pressure.”

Click on this for the AP feed.

Eight of American’s nine daily flights from Dallas to Seattle and SFO are MD-83s. And these weasels charge you extra for baggage, too.

“Kind of a bang” — American still in the flying casket business

Suit filed over fumes from Alaska Airlines plane


SEATTLE — An Alaska Airlines passenger is suing the airline over injuries she says she suffered when deicer fumes entered an aircraft at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Christmas Eve.

Paramedics treated 25 people who were on an Alaska Airlines plane. Deicer fumes made their way onto the plane and irritated the eyes of passengers and the crew.

An attorney for passenger Arianna Morgan says she still feels the effects of that exposure and suffers numbness in her hands and fatigue.

The lawyer says the airline had a duty to ensure ventilation systems were closed during deicing.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in federal court in Seattle.

Airline spokeswoman Caroline Boren says the company is concerned about passenger welfare and is reviewing the complaint.

All 143 passengers boarded another plane and continued to Burbank, Calif.

Suit filed over fumes from Alaska Airlines plane

Investigators: Gang graffiti exposed in Alaska Air jet cargo holds


Sparkling blue and white airplanes with the well-known Alaska Airlines logo painted on the side of the jets. This is the company image Alaska Airlines wants you to see.

But the KING 5 Investigators have obtained photos of the inside of some of their planes that the company would never want you to see: image after image of graffiti buried in the bellies of a number of planes where luggage, cargo and animals are loaded.

The pictures show area codes, scratched out symbols, and words that look like they could be related to gangs.
Is this harmless scribbling or really gang graffiti?  We showed our photos to five highly respected gang experts in Arizona, New York, California, and two in the Seattle area.  They all came to the same, disturbing conclusion.

“It’s definitely gang, and some major gangs are represented there, with some very violent rivalries.  No doubt about it,” said Richard Valdemar, who started the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gang unit 33 years ago. He’s one of the top gang experts in the country.

“There is some real rivalry going on,” he said.

We asked him to analyze 62 images, all taken from Alaska cargo bins.  Like the other four experts, he said the graffiti shows gang members are working there, with full access to the airplanes.

“By definition, they are gang members, which means they are outlaws. They’re outside of our system of law. They answer to their own system of law, which is a criminal culture,” he said.

Experts say the word “norte” appears many times in the images, as does “XIV”, the Roman numeral 14. Together, they refer to the violent Norte 14 gang.  Members identify themselves with locations like Oakland , and area code 510.

Their number one rival – the Surenos — is represented as well, primarily from further south, like Orange County and Santa Ana and area code 714.

Experts say this gang answers to the Mexican mafia, or EME, which you can faintly see spelled out in one of the images.

Throughout the bins, the monikers are crossed out, which means a serious challenge by a rival gang.

“It’s not just ‘I’m claiming this territory’ it’s also an act of defiance and it demands retaliation,” said Valdemar.
There other references to “Tookie,” likely the Crips gang founder Tookie Williams executed in California last month.

What’s more, there are many references to smoking drugs on the job.

One picture shows a marijuana joint with the Seattle area code 206 reference nearby. Underneath the joint, a line reads: “reason for delays.”

And a dollar sign written on top of a person smoking pot means something else in the gang world.

“So, they’re saying they sling dope … sell dope,” said Valdemar.

Pilots tell their union they saw a dramatic increase in this kind of graffiti last May, after Alaska fired its ramp workers and hired a cheaper outside contractor, Menzies Aviation, to load the bags on planes at Sea-Tac.

The union says whoever’s to blame, they want something done.

“Where is their limit?  What else are they going to do or what are they capable of?  It’s against the law and they should be prosecuted, and not out there on our ramp,” said Capt. Paul Emmert of the Seattle Pilot’s union.

Asked by Alaska Airlines months ago to look into complaints about graffiti, the Port of Seattle Police concluded that gang graffiti does not always equal gang activity.

“It just doesn’t amount to anything that raises to that level of concern that we’d want to take any other overt action in dealing with it,” said Port of Seattle Police Chief Tim Kimsey.

Alaska’s director of security says the company’s satisfied with the Port police investigation.

“They have told us it is not an indication of gang activity,” Holly Geiger Zimmerman said.

“I think we have to go with the jurisdiction. The people with jurisdiction is the airport police unit. We know they are good at their job,” she said.

Port police say they even went outside their department and showed similar images to their own gang experts.

“A few of them in there may raise some concern, based on that input that we got back, but again, not enough that it tells us that we have an issue or problem here at Sea-Tac Airport,” according to Kimsey.

But the KING 5 Investigators learned Wednesday night that the port was warned. A local gang task force looked at some photos last summer and told the officer assigned to the case this looked like a serious problem. 

And that’s exactly what all the experts told us in our investigation.

And the people writing the graffiti don’t belong anywhere near an aircraft, said Valdemar.

“That is a criminal element, active in the bellies of the planes, with rivals also in the same proximity.”

Why did the port ignore the advice of experts?

When we confronted them with that question Thursday, they said they didn’t think the group had enough experience to draw any conclusions.

That doesn’t explain why they sought their advice in the first place.

The experts tell us the graffiti suggests strong connections to California and Seattle.

Alaska Airlines told us repeatedly it’s depending on the Port of Seattle to investigate.

To this date the Port has not interviewed one employee or done any surveillance, something our experts all say would be a very good idea.

Investigators: Gang graffiti exposed in Alaska Air jet cargo holds

Letter to Alaska Airlines

Mr. Bill Ayers
President and CEO
Alaska Airlines
19300 International Boulevard
Seattle, WA 98188

Dear Mr. Ayers:

On Saturday, February 21, 2004, I flew on your airline from Burbank to Seattle, Flight #561. I am a professional musician of over 40 years standing, and a professional photographer of nearly 30 years. Thus, I often fly with my equipment. Sometimes I carry a guitar, sometimes I have photo gear, sometimes I have both.

On the day of my flight, I arrived at Bob Hope Airport/Burbank and checked in at 11:30am for a 2:00pm flight. I was the only person in line. I had in my possession one large soft case travel bag, a collapsible nylon mesh bag, a box of fragile glassware, a camera bag which doubled as my personal bag and a standard sized acoustic guitar in a hard shell case. It was my intention to check the large travel bag, and insert the box of glassware into the nylon mesh bag for carry-on. It was also my intention, as it has been for years, to carry my camera/personal bag and instrument on the plane with me.

Your counter attendant, however, saw it differently. She insisted that regardless of how I combined or configured my items, I would still be one item over the limit for carry-on. She insisted that I would have to check either the box of fragile glassware or the guitar.

At the time of my check-in I had in my possession a photocopy of a letter from Mr. Thomas R. Blank, Assistant Administrator for Security Regulation and Policy for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Security Administration. I have attached a copy of Mr. Blank’s letter herein. In his letter, dated January 17, 2003, to Mr. Thomas Lee of the American Federation of Musicians, Mr. Blank states:

“On December 20, 2002, TSA instructed aircraft operators that effective immediately, they are to allow musical instruments as carry-on baggage in addition to the limit of one bag and one personal item per person as carry-on baggage on an aircraft.”

I tried to present this letter and information to your attendant. She had no interest in reading it, and inferred that I was being argumentative. This surprised me, since at no time did I do or say anything that should have brought about such a response. In fact, I was doing my best to comply with her requirements.

In addition to the letter from Mr. Blank at TSA, I was in possession of an advisory notice from Mr. Eugene Mopsik, Executive Director of the American Society of Media Photographers, Inc. The advisory, dated November 20, 2003, states the following:

“Thanks to the effort of ASMP and the cooperation and understanding of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), working photographers and other members of the traveling public may now take on board an additional piece of carry-on baggage containing photographic equipment. This means you are allowed to carry on two bags – when at least one is photographic equipment – along with a personal item. …The TSA has said to go ahead at this time and take advantage of the new policy.”

I had no opportunity to present this information, either.

If I may, I would like to call your attention to your own website, regarding Alaska’s baggage policies. Under Section V, Baggage, Rule 190AS, Paragraph E, Item 6 Fragile Items, it states:

  • c. The classes of items listed below are deemed to be too fragile or perishable or otherwise unsuitable as checked baggage and are subject to the conditions of acceptance set fort in paragraphs a) and b) above:
  • v. Glass (see also chinaware/ceramics/pottery): Glassware, crystal, lamps, mirrors, bottles, and other glass containers and any liquids contained therein, telescopes, binoculars, barometers and eyeglasses and contact lenses that are not in their hard cases.
  • ix. Musical Instruments and Equipment: Guitars, violins and other stringed instruments, organs, horns, percussion, wind and brass instruments, amplifiers or speakers in conjunction with electronic instruments.
  • xi. Photographic/Cinematographic and Precision Equipment: Cameras, disposable cameras, photoflash equipment, photometers, spectroscopes, phototubes or other devices using sensitive tubes or plates, projectors, lenses, film, flash bulbs…

One thing seems quite clear: Under any of several scenarios, I should have been allowed to carry on the camera/personal bag, the glassware box and the guitar, without question. The TSA has adopted these policies and instructed the airlines accordingly. The policy regarding musical instruments is well over a year old; the policy regarding photographic equipment dates back three full months. And your own website acknowledges that these items are fragile and unsuitable to be checked as baggage.

Instead, I was forced to gate-check my guitar. When I picked it up in Seattle, the guitar felt nearly frozen. It should go without saying that subjecting an expensive professional instrument to the temperature extremes found in an unheated space at 31,000 feet is detrimental to the instrument. In some cases it can result in permanent damage. I would prefer to not run that risk on an irreplaceable instrument. I would prefer to not have my livelihood risked because my means of making it has been compromised by an airline attendant’s unwillingness to comply with, or even be informed of, standing TSA and airline policy. And I should think Alaska Airlines would not be enthused about the prospect of replacing a valuable instrument, let alone the inconvenience to one of its long-standing patrons.

The following information is also relevant:

  • My guitar easily fits into the overhead compartments of the 737’s and MD-80’s Alaska uses on the Burbank/Seattle route.
  • The glassware box and camera bag in question were both substantially smaller than most carry-on luggage. The camera/personal bag measures 16Lx10Wx7.5H inches, the glassware box 9x13x7.5 inches. Combined they are still smaller than many carry-ons. Either one fits under the seat in front of me, leaving the other for the overhead bin.
  • On all three other legs of my Alaska round trip, which took me to and from Manzanillo, Mexico, taking my guitar on the plane was never an issue. I had the identical carry-ons in Manzanillo as I did in Burbank.

Given the foregoing, can you please resolve these issues for me?

Is there any reason at all that your employees in Burbank would not be fully aware of TSA or Alaska Airlines policies?

Why would your Burbank counter attendant be unwilling to at least review the TSA and ASMP letters?

Why would your Burbank counter attendant be unaware of Alaska’s policy regarding fragile items?

What kind of response should I expect from your attendants the next time I fly Alaska Airlines with my professional equipment and/or instruments?

I very much look forward to your early response. Thank you very much.

Sincerely yours,

Jef Jaisun

Mr. Thomas R. Blank, TSA
Mr. Eugene Mopsik, ASMP
Mr. Thomas F. Lee, President, AFM New York
Mr. Hal Ponder, Legislative Director, AFM Washington, D.C.
Mr. John McCutcheon, President, AFM Local 1000

Letter to Alaska Airlines