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The Power of Blogging On Display – Alaska Airlines Decompression Incident

Just after the Christmas weekend, Jeremy Hermanns and his fiance were returning from a holiday trip when their Alaska Airlines MD-80 had a decompression problem and the plane made an emergency landing at SeaTac Airport in Seattle. While nonexplosive and undramatic emergency landings rarely attract the attention of the media, this one did. Why? Probably because Jeremy blogged about it.

Not only did he blog about it, but the news story from KOMO-TV was “dugg” by someone on Digg and made it into the Top Stories list by being “dugg” by so many people.

My husband, Brent VanFossen, is an aeronautical engineer who specializes in structural design, development, modification, and repair. He also is a representative for the FAA, which makes him quite the expert in his field. I’m not bragging, though just give me a chance ;-) , but giving you a little background as to why the following story caught our attention.

Interested in all airplane crashes, trials, and tribulations, I pointed this story out to him. We researched it a little more and found out that a baggage handler bumped into the airplane with the baggage cart and didn’t report the incident, something required. At the high altitude of the flight, we surmised that the thin skin of the plane gave way due to the dent or tear, causing the depressurization. Luckily, the passengers were fine and the plane landed without any trouble, though I’m sure the baggage handler is in some serious trouble.

What made us pay attention to this story for more than the 2 minutes it deserved was the fact that Alaska Airlines called the Seattle Police and reported a “hit-and-run”:

On Tuesday, Alaska Airlines contacted the Port of Seattle “and asked our police department to take a hit-and-run report,” port spokesman Bob Parker said Tuesday evening. “We’re coming into this a full 18 hours after the fact. We got involved after Alaska Airlines reported a hit-and-run involving their airplane.”

This cracked us up.

Jeremy Hermanns got into the news article because he was a passenger and he blogged about it, sharing some of the pictures he took with his Treo 650 of himself wearing the oxygen mask and the flight attendants and other passengers on the plane dealing with the emergency.

In his blog, Jeremy shares his feelings about the experience, an event that would have scared the snot out of anyone, in a calm, entertaining, and simple way. He is mostly concerned about his fiancée sitting 4 rows back:

We were all gripped in silence, surrounded by the white noise from the engines that eerily engulfed the plane into a surreal atmosphere. And as the oxygen masks deployed from the ceiling in a familiar, video-esque manner, we all grasped them in fear – trying to figure out how to breathe through the flimsy pieces of plastic. Parents were the most confused – as the masks were too large for their babies’ faces and were not easy to put on in such a panicked situation. The next few minutes passed like seconds – the plane started diving down to a lower level … and fast…

…Thank god for the help of an amazing cabin crew and pilot. Without them, who knows what could have happened.

The worst part for me was the fact that my Fiancée and I were 4 rows apart and she was closer to the rear of the plane where the loud ‘bang’ and Engine noise was coming from; I couldn’t stop thinking of how she felt, and how terrified she must be all alone back there.

As he describes the noise and smells, I’m sure that thoughts of fear and anxiety roared through his mind and everyone else on the plane. Thoughts like “I’m going to die” and “terrorist attack”. He doesn’t write about that. His words are very simple, just a person sharing with his friends a scary moment in his life. He doesn’t write about this being a “life changing event”, or bad-mouthing the airline, he just casually mentions being a pilot and trying to deal with the information he had around him to determine what was going on, pushing the horror thoughts down inside of himself, worrying more about his girlfriend than his imminent death.

The pictures aren’t very good, cast in the horrid green light of airplanes captured by a small built-in digital camera without flash, but it shows Jeremy’s sense of humor taking a picture of himself with the gas mask on, and shows the passengers in the cabin remaining calm and following the orders of the flight crew. After all, what can you do while you sit and wait your fate. Why not take your picture?

Still, none of this is worth of me blogging about it until I go digging in Digg today and find another post about the incident in the Digg Top Stories.

Jeremy Hermanns uses WordPress to blog. One of the built-in features of WordPress is to keep records of the IP addresses of those leaving comments on your blog. In a post called Alaska Airlines Comments on My Story, he talks about his site server being overwhelmed with visitors and comments, and how many are being automatically moderated and that he’s going through them as fast as he can. He mentions noticing something strange in his comments:

I’ll try to keep the comments moderated as much as possible, to remove the ugly/dirty/off-topic ones. But bear with me – we’re getting bombarded right now.

In the meantime, it’s time to play a fun little game–it’s called ‘Guess Whose IP Address These Nasty Comments Originated From’ (I’ll give you a hint — it rhymes with Mawaska Bearlines)…

…Like I said – these just originated from an IP address registered to them according to my WordPress comment logs; I don’t know if they’re from actual Alaska employees, or maybe just hackers using Alaska’s IP address. But according to my server logs and a simple WHOIS lookup, they all came from an IP address registered to Alaska Airline, Inc.

Until we know the answer for sure, this is what I understand from his post and the comments. It seems that someone(s) using an IP address registered with Alaska Airlines has been posting rude, vile, obnoxious, and totally inappropriate comments on his blog. While masking or hiding your IP address can be done with security/protective software, replacing it with another is very unusual and not for your average blog commenter. This takes some skill and expertise.

To knowingly go out and grab an IP registered with Alaska Airlines and get that into the comment’s IP address (grabbed automatically by WordPress) is a lot of work and conscious effort. To do it on a post that only says nice things about Alaska Airlines, trying to defuse the issue or sensationalize it, I don’t know…that is just bizarre.

Jeremy might not have paid attention to such a detail in his WordPress comments, but he admits that he noticed them because there were so many of them from the same IP address, even though the name was not always the same.

When was the last time you did some checking on the IP address of your comments? I only check when I’m not sure if the comment is spam or not, and comment spammers can say some nice things, making the decision difficult.

So what does this all mean to the Blogosphere?

As I said, for the most part, this would be a non-event. A little terrifying thing happened, someone blogged about it, and life went on. But it didn’t. Jeremy’s blog was picked up by Digg and probably some other tagging or social bookmarking services, the media found it and printed his pictures, which led to his blog, and the word spread. Within a very short time, comment spammers or whoever wanted to add their foolish weight to the issue, and started attacking Jeremy on his blog. Jeremy noticed the IP address came from Alaska Airlines. Now, this non-event is news again because this represents a serious concern and possible attack on blogging with targeted comment spam.

What if this is just the tip of the iceberg? What if there are companies with paid employees whose only job is to monitor the Blogosphere and Internet for any comments, good or bad, about their company, and then to respond – good or bad as ordered. Or is this just an example of the time-wasters out there, the same people who come up with viruses and worms and spam that make our lives miserable because they are too smart for their own good and bored? Are they now going after blogs with their own unique comment spam attacks? Just because they can?

The big story here is not about what happened to Jeremy and his girlfriend. Yes, it was terrifying, and I love how he described it. The story is not about Alaska Airlines, or even the baggage crew. This is not even an issue about the airline industry. It is about the impact a blog post can have on the world and the media, and the Blogosphere.

Jeremy found a whole world of people out there via his blog, most of them strangers, who expressed their concern and support for what happened to him. He also found that there is a dark side to blogging and fame. We all need to learn about the dark side as well as the bright side of blogging, and this is a prime example.


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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen

One Comment

  1. Posted January 4, 2006 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Dear Lorelle,

    I read your take on the Jeremy Hermanns / Alaska Airlines Employees incident and found it very interesting.

    We’re recording a podcast interview with an attorney who specializes in free speech issues and we wanted and we wanted to get questions from thought leaders in the blogosphere.

    If you’ve got a question or two about the legal issues involved, please post them in the comments section of our post on the subject:

    Thanks very much,
    Teresa Valdez Klein
    Project Manager, Communications & Blogging
    Blog Business Summit


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] When I blogged about Jeremy Hermanns blogging about his hair-raising event on an Alaska Airlines flight, my reasons were mixed. [...]

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