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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Spokane's 'North Pole' flight for poor kids attracting attention from other cities

The annual Fantasy Flight to the "North Pole" that Alaska Airlines makes possible each year for 60 disadvantaged Spokane-area kids and their personal elves is now attracting the attention of other cities who might like to create similar events, possibly in partnership with Alaska.

 

The children, selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene areas, board Alaska Airlines "flight 1225," designated "Santa One," Saturday at Spokane International Airport.

 

This is the fifth year Alaska has operated the flight in Spokane for Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), a 501c3 created and overseen by Steve Paul, president, CEO and executive director. He's a software executive who spends much of the year preparing for, agonizing over funding for,and carrying off the event, where at trip time he's better known as "Bernie" the Head Elf.

 

Steve's headshot
Steve Paul, event creator as 
head elf "Bernie" 

Alaska made the flight unique when it took over from United Airlines after that airline was unable to make a jetliner available in December of 2008. Though a number of airlines around the country, actually around the world, have been engaged in such Christmas Season flights since even before Alaska got involved, it was Alaska employees who asked: "why can't we take the kids up in the air?"

 

Thus it was that Alaska was the first to actually fly away, taking the kids to "the North Pole."

Brad Tilden
 Brad Tilden, Alaska Air CEO 

United now has North Pole adventures, for children with serious illnesses, that take to the air from both Los Angeles and San Francisco for flights around California that land back at the airport from which they departed. Other airlines doing "flights" that mostly involve taxiing around the airport with window shades down are Continental, American and Southwest.

 

Elsewhere in the world, kids are carried aloft by British Airways in Scotland and Aerolineas Argentinas, which conducts fantasy flights between Buenos Aires' two main airports.

 

Recognition for the Spokane event got broader last year thanks to coverage by Seattle's KCPQ-TV, which actually also did a program on it for CNN as well as its own regular news coverage. That greater visibility is providing both relief and opportunity for Paul.

 

"This is the first that I am not panicking about funding as the event nears," he said in an interview. He's attracted a number of local sponsors at various levels and has a cash-and-in-kind budget this year of just under $200,000.

kids in plane
Kids awaiting takeoff for 'North Pole'

The key in-kind, of course, is Alaska's participation, a role that has been low key from the outset in 2008.

 

"Alaska has never pressed for any visibility," Paul noted. "They are just happy to be great philanthropists for this project, though many of Alaska's employees consider this a high point of their year." As many as 30 Alaska and Horizon Air employees will participate this year, though more sought to volunteer.

 

"Alaska wants to do things for the right reasons and visibility is typically not high on the list of right reasons," says Alaska's new chairman and CEO, Brad Tilden. "But it's not that we need to be secretive about something we're very proud of supporting the event and many others who are involved, including many of our employees."

 

And as a new CEO, he brings his own sense of expanding upon this event by being open to seeing something similar develop in other Alaska cities.

 

"We'd be happy to help in other cities," Tilden told me in an email exchange. "I think Steve and his team put in an unbelievable amount of work to bring this event alive, and we'd have to make sure we have a group in another city that is onboard with all of this."

 

"But again, I'm very open to the idea," he added.

 

"Seattle would like to have a similar Fantasy Flight for kids but the challenge is how to scale it," Paul notes. "They'd need a facility, sponsors and community support behind the idea."

 

"We could easily do a Seattle one, bringing kids from there to Spokane to have the same experience our kids do, then fly back home.," he adds.

 

"A lot of people have said we should take this on the road," Paul notes. "I could do that if I could get people to define their non-profit or if our organization were to expand. But this is not some casual party. A lot of planning and time is involved."

 

Among the Alaska-served cities where such Fantasy Flights don't yet occur, in addition to Seattle and Portland, are San Diego, Orange County and the Palm Springs area.

 

The Spokane flight has priority status with the FAA once it's loaded and ready to fly and "Santa One" comes up on the screen. Then the flight's own personal air traffic controller takes over, Paul said. "It becomes just like Air Force One in that respect."

 

"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," Paul explained to me in an interview for a column on him I did a year ago.  

 

"We take those lists and buy each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what he or she wants, Santa can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them. The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."

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