AirTran Airways is sending $100 travel vouchers to thousands of travelers to apologize for delays caused by a computer glitch earlier this week.
AirTran Vice President Tad Hutcheson, who acknowledged Wednesday that some customers "had to wait all day" to catch their flights at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said the Orlando, Fla.-based airline is mailing the vouchers to passengers whose trip began in Atlanta "to say we're sorry."
AirTran's problems began early Tuesday when it switched to new computer software controlling reservations, passenger check-ins and other functions. Check-in operations were on and off all day, causing lines at ticket counters to grow to about 1,000 people in Atlanta's airport, where the airline has 250 daily flights.
Customers at several other airports also were affected, but to a lesser extent than at AirTran's Atlanta hub. There, about 15,000 people were delayed or missed flights, according to one estimate.
AirTran said operations were nearly back to normal Wednesday afternoon, with most customers waiting about an hour to get boarding passes.
AirTran's apology is unusual in an industry where airlines rarely issue blanket compensation to passengers after such problems, said Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University.
"What a great way to apologize," Bernhardt said.
AirTran's computer problems began as it replaced its software with a new Windows-based system. The new system was expected to handle more transactions and to give the fast-growing airline more flexibility to add features in the future. AirTran said it spent years planning the change and months testing and revising the software after Minneapolis-based Navitaire said it no longer planned to maintain the old system.
Most parts of the new software worked properly when the system was booted up at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, AirTran said. But the system that controls check-ins at airport counters as well as at self-service kiosks and online did not.
"When the switch-over occurred, we started seeing problems in all three (check-in) areas," said Judy Graham-Weaver, an AirTran spokeswoman. Technicians who had already been up 24 hours or more getting ready for the switch worked to patch the system and bring it online, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the morning rush at the Atlanta airport.
Ticket counter clerks were forced to write boarding passes by hand.
The situation worsened as would-be passengers, including the half who normally got their own boarding passes at self-serve kiosks or online check-in, also had to wait in line.
Graham-Weaver said the lines were cleared by 11 p.m. Tuesday, but she conceded that many customers had already left the airport in frustration.
But AirTran should recover from its stumble with "very little, if any, permanent damage," Bernhardt said.
"People know you have glitches," he said. And AirTran had already built up goodwill with many customers before the incident, Bernhardt said.
"When you have some goodwill in the bank," said Bernhardt, "people will cut you a little slack."
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