AA-Fantasy-flight_banner2020

The Fantasy Flight to the North Pole that has brought 60-some Spokane area needy kids and their elves each year to a visit with Santa Clause at his home has been Alaska Airlines’ annual holiday gift to not just the children but also to its employees who helped arrange or participated in the actual flight. Of course, the 24th annual event isn’t happening this year.

But Steve Paul, the Spokane tech executive who has overseen all aspects of planning for the event for 20 years, put it this way: “Our 24th Spokane Fantasy Flight is taking ‘A long winter’s nap’ this year! We plan to awake in the New Year to celebrate our 25th event. A nap this year is the right thing to do.”

So in perhaps his most challenging year, Paul has made sure the orphans and foster kids in the Spokane area will still have a special holiday season.

Elf Bernie (Steve Paul)Elf Bernie (Steve Paul)And Alaska Airlines, which brought what I refer to as “the magic dust of caring” to the event when it took over from United Airlines in 2008 and actually took the kids aloft from Spokane International Airport for the flight, intends to be back in its special role.

The Fantasy Flight to the North Pole that has brought 60-some Spokane area needy kids and their elves each year to a visit with Santa Clause at his home has been Alaska Airlines’ annual holiday gift to not just the children but also to its employees who helped arrange or participated in the actual flight. Of course, the 24th annual event isn’t happening this year.

I asked CEO Brad Tilden about that in an interview last month and he said “we’re looking forward to resuming this unique event next year.”

And Alaska President Ben Municucci, who will succeed Tilden as CEO in March as Tilden retains the board chair position, was equally positive about Alaska’s tie to the future of the Fantasy flight.

“Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air employees live our values, alongside our communities, and this incredible giving is no exception,” Minicucci said. “I can’t wait ‘til we’re back out there next year, and in the meantime, we wish everyone a safe holiday and especially those experiencing an even greater need this year and those giving what they can to provide additional support.”

Paul, President, and CEO of Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), the non-profit he created that oversees the year-long details of planning the event each year, said the board agreed last month to provide an equal allocation of $2,500 each to the four agencies that chose the children to participate. He said the agencies opted to create their own events for distributing the gifts rather than have NNPA create an event.

The four agencies are St, Vincent de Paul of North Idaho, Transition Living Center of Spokane, Catholic Charities St. Margaret House in Spokane, and Salvation Army Homeless Housing in Spokane.

“Normally, we host 60 to 65 children between the ages of 4-10 for a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Fantasy Flight,” Paul said. “Per the agency feedback, our funds this year will reach 150-200 children in the same age range, regardless of their past participation (meaning regardless of whether they have been on an actual flight.”

“For 2021, we plan to resume ‘everything’ within the parameters of a post-pandemic ‘normal’! Our 2021 “I Believe Auction Gala” is scheduled for next September 25 at the Spokane Convention Center,” Paul added. “Our Spokane Fantasy Flight will continue into its 25th year.”

Paul, who is Elf Bernie when he puts on his costume including red top hat, reminded me that changes that occurred last year, preparing for the 20-minute flight for the kids and their elves aboard an Alaska 737-900, will be part of planning for 2021. Those included a new, more expansive hanger arranged for to provide a North Pole Santa's home with more space for volunteers, and a new Santa, the first change in the jolly old man in a number of years.
 
Pilot Erik Hrivnak and friendPilot Erik Hrivnak and friendIncidentally, when I asked Paul prior to last year's column about his elf age, given that he was 43 in people years when he first got involved in 2000, he said his elf age is 907 years, adding that is really only middle age for elves so he still has a ways to go. And he leaves no sign of slowing down, including handling getting through 2020 and preparing for a return in 2021.

United had carried out the holiday event for a number of years but merely taxied the plane around the airport before stopping in front of a north-pole bedecked hanger on the other side of the airport for a party with Santa.

 But when Paul, now a senior IT project manager at Spokane energy management company Engie Insight, approached Alaska about replacing United, he asked why the plane couldn't take off and fly around for a bit before arriving at Santa's home. And so it happened.

 And every year since.

A key part of the event magic in recent years has been Alaska pilot Eric Hrivnak, who has been at the controls for a half dozen or so years, a role for which there has come to be competition from other pilots. As the flight nears its conclusion, the passengers are told to pull the window shades down and chant the magic words that will allow them to land at the North Pole.
 
As the kids pull down their shades and do a chant, each one waves a magic light wand they were given as they boarded, and then Hrivnak deploys the engine thrusters when Santa and Rudolph appear on the radar screen, providing the confirmation that the "Santa 1" flight has entered North Pole airspace.
 
The jetliner lands and taxis to a hanger on the other side of the airport, where the passengers are greeted by a group of elves, with live reindeer milling about, and are they taken to meet Santa and Mrs. Clause.

Those memories will sustain supporters of the event through this year’s “long winter’s nap” and set the stage for planning for 2021.

They are the kind of magic memories needed this year, so “Merry Christmas to all!”