Is Alaska Airlines Being Cheap By Only Offering Passengers $1,500 for Their Trauma?

After a plane door ripped off mid flight, the airline at fault had a seemingly insensitive response.
Updated May 8, 2024
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Alaska Airlines Airplane

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In the wake of a mid-flight nightmare aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, where a door plug gave way at 16,000 feet, the question lingers in the air: what price tag can you assign to human trauma? As passengers grapple with the aftermath of a compensation offer that seems tiny, given the magnitude of their ordeal — a mere $1,500 — the incident prompts a conversation about how much companies truly value their customers.

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What happened at the Alaska Airlines event?

A door “plug” toward the end of the plane became loose and fell into the sky shortly after takeoff during the Alaska Airlines flight. As the door plug burst, chaos ensued, with belongings sucked into the night sky, oxygen masks dropping, and passengers fearing for their lives.

The two passengers who would have been seated directly next to the opening fatefully missed their flight. The force from the blow was strong enough to rip a young boy’s shirt off his body and other passengers had personal belongings, like the (now famous) iPhone that miraculously survived the 16,000-foot drop, sucked into the night sky.

How much is your trauma worth?

In a situation where the financial evaluation of emotional distress remains controversial, Alaska Airlines seems to have already figured it out. When facing the horror of a mid-flight emergency, passengers questioned whether they would live to tell the tale. One passenger, Emma Vu, texted her parents shortly after the plane door flew off, telling them to pray for her as she believed she was not going to make it.

Alaska Airlines has put a price tag on this stress — at just $1,500 to prepare financially for the effects of the event. The meager amount offered per passenger raises questions about the adequacy of the offer and the airlines' moral responsibility when compensating individuals for the intangible toll of trauma.

What Alaska Airlines says

Alaska Airlines' compensation package, a mix of a ticket refund and the $1,500 sum becomes a focal point of scrutiny. From the airline's perspective, this amount is presumably a response to the passengers' inconveniences and to lower financial stress.

No fatalities or major injuries were reported. However, many say the incident could have been avoided entirely, questioning whether the airline knowingly allowed the plane to fly.

Despite the Boeing 737 Max 9 that suffered the accident being brand-new, warning lights were triggered on three flights, including each of the two days before the unfortunate events of Friday night.

The lights were warnings from a cabin-pressurization system, which Alaska Airlines was aware of. Instead of grounding the plane, the airline chose not to use the plane for its route to Hawaii over the Pacific and limited its routes to on-land destinations so it could return to an airport quickly in the case of an emergency. Alaska Airlines has since declined to comment.

The AP reports that the FAA has grounded all Alaska, United, and some foreign airline Max 9s for inspection after the near-fatal incident. On Monday afternoon, United Airlines said it found loose bolts and other installation issues on door plugs inspected after the Alaska accident.

The cost of other traumatic events

To contextualize the Alaska Airlines incident, it helps to examine how other airlines have handled compensation for similar traumatic events. 

Alaska Airlines has previously been involved in controversy. In January of 2000, Flight 261 crashed into the Pacific Ocean en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Seattle, Washington. All 88 on board were killed. The victim's families were awarded $40 million in compensation.

In 1994, American Eagle Flight 4184 suffered a fatal crash killing everyone on board after an inattentive flight crew and faulty de-icing system caused a crash during an ice storm. Over $110 million was secured for 28 families whose cases were consolidated.

The current Alaska Airlines situation is not the first for the Boeing 737 Max, which seems to have had several problems over the last few years. The airplane model suffered crashes in October 2018 and March 2019. The victims' families received a $500 million settlement.

The crashes, under Lion Air in Indonesia and Ethiopian Airlines, killed a total of 346 people. The Max was grounded globally for 20 months. The Max 9 at fault for the current Alaska fiasco, supposedly delivered with new built-in safety features, is the newer iteration of the Max.

How trauma settlements are typically calculated

The process of calculating trauma settlements is multifaceted, involving legal, psychological, and ethical considerations. Proximity to the traumatic event, individual experiences, and the challenges in arriving at a fair and sufficient compensation amount are considered.

Each passenger’s individual experience, like their proximity to the hole blown into the plane, factors into the amount of damages a jury would likely award them in a trial. That said, any passenger on the plane is entitled to file a lawsuit.

Legal professionals' recommendations

Seeking clarity amid the turmoil, passengers turn to legal professionals for guidance. Daniel Laurence, a partner at the Stritmatter Firm, emphasizes the inadequacy of the offered $1,500, asserting that passengers have a legitimate claim for emotional distress, reports the Washington Post.

Laurence also stresses that passengers affected by the accident should seek professional counseling before pursuing compensation. “My advice to every client in every personal injury situation, and particularly in situations like this, is to get well first, to the extent they can,” said Laurence, who is representing several passengers in the Horizon/Alaska Air case.

Bottom line

It’s hard to put a number on pain, but $1,500 seems insensitive given the negligence in avoiding clear warning signs in the days leading up to the accident. Luckily, there were no fatalities or injuries. Still, the harrowing experience — and seemingly unreasonable response after that — prompts a greater look into the consideration large airlines and corporations truly give their customers.

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Georgina Tzanetos Georgina Tzanetos is a former financial advisor who has been active in financial media for the past six years. She holds a master's in political economy from NYU, where she studied distressed labor markets.