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Alaska's Cuba service recalls Russia Far East venture

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Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE It was logical and appropriate that the first air carrier to connect the Western United States to Cuba should be Alaska Airlines, given that carving out new frontiers and seeking new challenges has been the culture of the airline over its eight-plus decades.

“As we kick off our 85th anniversary year, the inauguration of Cuba service marks the latest in some fascinating twists and turns to our route network,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska’s senior vice president for external relations.

Indeed the Cuba service launch brought back particular memories of Alaska’s far-out decision a quarter century ago to begin regular service to the Russian Far East, seizing what was then a thawing of relations between the two countries and the emergence of the Seattle area as a key player in that relationship that was beginning to verge on friendship.

Back in 1991, Seattle had already hosted the Goodwill Games competition between the U.S. and Russia, and business relations were being pursued. So Alaska launched summer service that year to Magadan, a sister city to Anchorage, and Khabarovsk, described as a European-style interior city that was the commercial and industrial hub for Russia’s Far East.

Part of the U.S.-Russia relations that emerged prompted creation of the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation FRAEC), whose then-president Carol Vipperman recalled in an email exchange this week “the Alaska flights to the Russian Far East were very meaningful to both sides.”

The challenges of some of Alaska’s early flights, eventually extending to five cities in the rugged Far East of Russia, could provide comedy-script material, but also confirmed the pioneering spirit of Alaska’s people.

The inaugural flight to Magadan, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, turned up the fact the airport had no de-icing service. It was reported the pilot rounded up every bottle of vodka available and sprayed it on the wings with a garden hose.

And when Alaska launched service to Petropavlovsk, the largest city on the Kamchatka Peninsula, as the inaugural flight loaded with dignitaries was about to land, ground authorities told the pilot he did not have landing rights so the Alaska jet was forced to turn around and return to Anchorage.

Alaska was forced to end the service, on which the airline insisted it made money over the nearly a decade of doing business, when the Russian economy collapsed in 1998.

Vipperman recalls being on the next-to-last flight, with long-time Secretary of State Ralph Munro and some Alaska officials.

“We had come from a bilateral meeting, and at the Kamchatka airport we were taken off the plane to meet with the governor of Kamchatka and other officials so that we could talk about the impact the closure would have on their region,” she recalled in our email exchange. “While we sipped vodka, the plane sat on the tarmac waiting for us to come back.”

“I was personally sad to see the service to the Russian Far East end,” she added.

Alaska’s innovative outreach to the Russian Far East actually went back almost two decades earlier, in the early ‘70s, when the still young carrier began charter service to the Soviet Union’s Siberia as a result of what have been described as “secret negotiations” between the airline and Soviet Authorities.

When the U.S. Department of State learned of the deal, it decided not to block the plan, indicating it didn’t want to create a negative response from the Soviet Union. It might also be assumed the agency wanted to avoid a negative response from Washington State’s two U.S. senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, then among the Senate’s most powerful members.

I emailed Sprague for some thoughts on the service that began in the ‘90s.

“The service to the Russian Far East was really something,” said Sprague, who was then with an Anchorage-based regional airlines. “It still amazes me to look at the map and think how far away from home base we were flying our old MD-80s for that service.”

Sprague noted Alaska’s long history of connecting communities, with the Russian Far East and now Cuba as key pieces, but also including launch of service to resort cities in Mexico, Hawaii, then points to the East Coast and Midwest.

The latest, of course, being the merger with Virgin America, which will create Alaska linkage of all the major cities on the West Coast.

“Our various moves have been good for the company, but we also like to think they have been good for the communities we serve,” Sprague said.

An example of serving communities is the fact that, despite filling it planes with passengers destined for popular vacation and business destinations, the airline continues to serve a special role in the infrastructure of the state where it was born as an airline connecting remote locations.

As Sprague noted: “We are proud that we still serve 19 points within the state of Alaska, only three of which are connected to the road system.”

 

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Alaska Airlines' 'magical' Spokane Fantasy Flight

When 67 Spokane area orphans and homeless kids and their elves take off Saturday from Spokane International Airport for a "flight" to the North Pole to meet Santa, it will be proof of both the "impossible things" that head elf Steve Paul believes in as well as evidence of "The Magic Dust of Caring" that seems to settle on those involved.

This year's Fantasy Flight is aboard an Alaska Airlines 737-900. This trip to the North Pole has been an annual event in Spokane, with little visibility, for almost 20 years. But it wasn't until Alaska got involved in 2008 at the request of Paul, president and CEO of the 501c3 that
  
Steve Paul and Santa-bound child

oversees details of the event, that the real magic arrived as well.

Paul, president of Northwest North Pole Adventures (NNPA), has guided details of the yearly event since 2000. The senior IT Project Manager at Ecova, an energy management company based in Spokane, spends much of the year preparing for the flight. He works with social agencies that select the children, gathers sponsors and oversees details like elf selection, all on a $200,000 budget that includes in-kind, like the Alaska flight.
Alaska pilot and happy child 
Originally United was the airline partner and provided the little organization that was then called North Pole Adventure with a plane that, once loaded with the children, taxied around the airport before coming to a stop at Santa's place.

But when United was unable to provide a plane in 2007, Paul recalls: "we threw together the 'magic buses' to get from the Terminal to the North Pole."

ThenPaul approached Alaska, which not only agreed to provide the plane but executives asked the event-changing question: "is there any reason why we don't take them up the air for the trip to the North Pole?"

Since then Alaska's employees have not only been enthusiastic participants, but often compete to be part of the crew.

"It's fair to say that Spokane Fantasy Flight...has as much of an effect on Alaska and Horizon employees as on the children who are treated like kings and queens for a night," said Alaska Airlines Chairman and CEO Brad Tilden.

To ensure the selection process for these children is reaching the most deserving, NNPA works only with the area's social agencies, which use their selection and screening processes to pull the children who desperately need to create positive Christmas holiday memories. Each child may only attend once in their lifetime.

So Saturday afternoon the children, age 4-10, are brought to the airport where each meets his or her "buddy elf." Then, with the help of the TSA workers, who look the other way as metal jingle bells on the kids' and elves' clothing set off alarms, they all pass through security and board the Alaska flight.

I first learned of the event a half dozen years ago from my friend, Blythe Thimsen, then editor of a Spokane magazine who was to be an elf that year, an experience she subsequently wrote about and sent me a copy of the article.

Retelling and updating the story has been my holiday gift to readers of The Harp since then because it's a story of human caring and compassion that won't get old.
I asked Paul, who puts on the uniform and becomes Elf Bernie for the day, for some details of preparation of the volunteer elves.

As evidence that nothing is left to chance, he told me the elves are advised on how to play their roles convincingly, being told to choose an elf name and "make certain your elf character fits you and get comfortable in your new identity."
The elves' prepping includes knowing how to answer questions from the children. For example, if asked what their jobs is, they say "I fix broken toys, using toy tools," and if asked how old they are, to say "I am 438 this year which is still young for an Elf."

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 waves a magic light wand they were given as they boarded.

The North Pole, where Santa and Mrs. Clause, real reindeer and a full complement of elves await, is actually a hanger on the other side of the airport. The ownership of the hanger has changed three times but each new owner has quickly joined the event. 
"Honestly, Spokane is the North Pole and we have an airline that is passionate about serving this adventure," said Paul, with his perpetual enthusiasm on display.
"You know, Mike, it feels like this is what I am supposed to do," he said. "It's not like I must force myself or convince myself to work on this. There's no regret of other things I could be doing. I'm both proud and very humbled. The donors fund and support us to ensure we have an amazing event each year. The volunteers literally crawl over each other to get selected to do their duty."

Paul added: "I know I can't fix the situations in life that have brought these children to the place we find them. But I can give them a brain full of amazingly magical memories of a day when they took their first airplane ride, when they touched their first reindeer and had their own elf as best friend, and met Santa in his North Pole home."
"I always believe in amazing and impossible things," he added.
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Alaska Airlines begins wooing process for Virgin America fans

Alaska Airlines’ goal of winning friends and influencing people in the Bay Area, whose hometown airline is about to be absorbed by the Seattle-based carrier, began in earnest Tuesday night in San Francisco as Alaska executives and board members hosted a gathering for local leaders.

Some 250 business, political and community leaders were on hand at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco for an event whose theme was “Flying Better Together.” The goal of the gathering of Bay Area who’s who was for them to meet and begin to get to know the leadership of the airline that is buying Virgin America, the Richard Branson-founded carrier that began service as San Francisco’s hometown low-cost airline nine years ago this month.

During that nearly a decade of service, Virgin built what many in the Bay Area have described as “almost a cult following,”with many regular flyers enthusing that they “love Virgin.”

Aware of that challenge, Alaska CEO Brad Tilden and his executive team have sought to express sensitivity to the cultural issues and the initial backlash from Virgin fans. That awareness was pointed up a few weeks ago when Tilden told the Wings Club, a group of aviation professionals in New York, that he was thinking of running the Alaska and Virgin as separate airlines within Alaska Air Group.

Such an outcome may or may not still be a possibility, but when I asked Joseph Sprague, Alaska senior vice president, after the Tuesday event, about Virgin continuing to function as a third carrier, he said: “ Initially it will be a third airline but by 2018 it will be merged into Alaska.”

But Alaska leadership is playing up a cultural fit they see existing between Alaska and Virgin, rather than addressing the different styles.

Sprague said “a lot of the integration pre-planning work has revealed an encouraging number of similarities from which we can build.” 

He noted that Tilden, in his comments to the group Tuesday, pointed out three such similarities: “both have an obsessive focus on the customer, we both want companies that are employee-driven and we both have a strong leaning towards innovation around the customer experience.”

Alaska’s San Francisco community gathering came exactly s week after shareholders of Virgin America approved the acquisition by Alaska Air Group, with Virgin’s chairman announcing the voting results at a brief shareholders meeting on July 26.

That Virgin shareholder approval was the next-to-last major hurdle for the takeover, with the remaining step being U.S. Justice Department approval. Closing by October is expected for the $4 billion deal ($2.6 billion in cash and the rest in assumed debt and other costs) that Alaska had to put together to beat out Jet Blue.

It’s quite possible that the shadow of Delta Airlines’ seeming predator pursuit of Alaska that left key Alaska supporters concerned Delta was seeking to force a takeover played a role in Alaska’s decision to acquire Virgin America for a very large premium.

But in addition to likely ending concern about Delta coveting a takeover, Alaska also gets Virgin’s lucrative California routes as well as keeping Jet Blue, the losing suitor in the Virgin bidding contest, from acquiring the routes.

In fact, it’s perhaps amusing to consider the community response if Delta, after a hostile takeover of Alaska, held a reach-out event with the theme “get to know us.” They’d have faced a ferociously hostile audience in Seattle.

But obviously Alaska, which has been successfully serving the Bay Area from three airport for years, isn’t perceived as a bad guy, more just a carrier that locals don’t know a lot about other than it has an excellent record in all the areas airlines get rated.

In fact, as Phyllis Campbell, Alaska board member and Pacific Northwest chairman of JP Morgan Chase, put it after the event: ‘I think it is emblematic of Alaska Airlines to reach out to the community in a spirit of collaboration and collegiality. Having dinners like this send the message that we want to be the best airline going forward for the Region and also the best citizen in terms of community partnership.”

In fact, the event was apparently successful enough from Alaska’s perspective that Sprague said “we will likely do additional events, both of our own and sponsoring others.”

Still there are Virgin supporters whose love affair with the airline was partly due to the fact it was the Bay Area’s hometown airline. And the takeover will mean not just the end of Virgin’s “hometown” ties, but also that California will no longer have an airline based in a state that has served as home to a variety of important carriers over the years.

As Mary Huss, publisher of Puget Sound Business Times, summed up when I asked her about it: “I think people were very proud that Virgin chose to locate and start up here when it did.”

But while Jet Blue lost the bidding to Alaska, it is seeking to woo Virgin fans away before Alaska can convert them by looking for ways to exploit what it senses as uncertainty of flyers about the transition. It has been touting giveaway deals to potential frequent users of Jet Blue’s longhaul service from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles, including its tongue-in-cheek wooing of Jet Blue “virgins,” those who haven’t previously tried Jet Blue.

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Virgin deal should end business community concerns about Delta designs on Alaska

"We're viewing this as a combination that will make Alaska stronger and better positioned to remain a successful, independent, Seattle-based company for decades to come."

by Joe Sprague, Senior Vice PresidentCommunications & External Relations

There's no way of knowing the extent to which the shadow of Delta Airlines hung over Alaska Air Group's decision last fall to connect with Virgin America about a possible takeover.

But regardless, a local business community troubled for months that it needed to figure out how to help Alaska Airlines ward off what was perceived as a takeover effort by Delta Airlines can stop worrying. Alaska saved itself.

That's the underlying fact about the announcement last week that Alaska has agreed to buy Virgin America for $2.6 billion cash, with assumed debt, leases and other costs bringing the total to about $4 billion. That's a figure viewed by some experts as too much -- a huge premium that Alaska had to pay on Virgin's market valuation to beat out JetBlue to land the deal.

But it depends on what a company like Alaska is buying. And in Alaska's case, it's a twofer, or maybe a threefer, as it dramatically expands its California presence and keeps Jet Blue from acquiring Virgin's lucrative California routes. But maybe most importantly, it pretty much ends the concern about a Delta takeover strategy.

Concern over any Delta designs on Alaska should pass, if for no other reason than that the Justice Department wouldn't be likely to allow one of the Big Four carriers to buy number five, which is where the Virgin deal, once approved, would place Alaska.

That Justice Department point was offered by Joseph Shocken, president of Seattle's Broadmark Capital, when I asked him his thoughts after the Virgin announcement, since Shocken was perhaps the most outspoken business advocate of a "support Alaska" strategy over the past 18 months.

It was Shocken, whose business activity at his successful boutique merchant bank has made him somewhat of an expert on how mergers and acquisitions play out, who first reached out to me about "the business community needs to take sides and do so visibly against Delta."

I was receptive to Shocken's argument, and did several columns commencing with one that said Delta had turned from partner, which had been its relationship with Alaska, to predator.

The reaction of others I met with in the business community, not just in Seattle but across the state, after the first column indicated to me that Shocken wasn't merely crying wolf, particularly after a member of Alaska's board had confided "we're really worried."

So was the Delta issue a consideration for Alaska in its decision to approach Virgin America last fall about a sale?

Asked about that, Joe Sprague, Senior Vice PresidentCommunications & External Relations, said "We're viewing this as a combination that will make Alaska stronger and better positioned to remain a successful, independent, Seattle-based company for decades to come."

The deal still needs to pass through regulatory approval and as part of its information pack Alaska Airlines issued a timeline with the deal set to close January 1, 2017, and full integration by the first quarter of 2018.

The merge is likely to attract the scrutiny of Justice Department officials already pursuing allegations that America's biggest airlines have colluded to keep airfares high.

And since the takeover will mean California no longer will have an airline based in the state, which served as home to a variety of carriers over the decades, there may well be an effort to convince regulators it's not good for consumers.

For those who like a chuckle with their politics, it would amusing if Alaska-Virgin provided California's dynamic female Democratic duo in the U.S, Senate reason to clash for the first time with their Washington Senate Democrat counterparts.

But antitrust experts suggest the takeover of Virgin by Alaska probably will be seen by those federal regulators as a union that will better equip Alaska to compete against larger rivals.

And if the concern of Shocken and others who have watched the shrinkage of the airline industry by takeovers play out were legitimate, Alaska was destined to lose a battle with Delta so the prospect of an erosion of discount fares was bound to be an outcome, whether because if Alaska's growth or its decline.

The final piece of the Delta puzzle that needs to play out is the possible restoration of a Delta-Alaska partnership arrangement. The effort to achieve that is certainly a possibility with the retirement of Richard Anderson from the CEO role, since he was the key protagonist in the obvious beat-down-Alaska strategy. But since Anderson remains as executive chairman of the Delta board, he may still influence a Delta move to restore relations with Alaska, returning to partner instead of predator.

But the fact is any thoughts about that are not even on Alaska's agenda right now. 

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Copyright

© Mike Flynn 2016

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Spokane Fantasy Flight for orphans, homeless kids sprinkles 'magic dust' of caring on all

Hopefully everyone in need of positive thoughts in these emotion-charged times will in some way be touched by the same "Magic Dust" of caring that sprinkles over all those involved with Saturday's Spokane Fantasy Flight for 62 orphans and homeless kids and their elves to Santa's North Pole home aboard an Alaska Airlines 737-900.

Steve Paul, 'Elf Bernie' 
The magic manifests itself not only in the eyes of the youngsters, ranging in age from 4 to 10 years, selected by shelters and community programs in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, but also on the faces of the dozens of adults, ranging from TSA agents to elves to Alaska flight-crew members and volunteers.

This will be the 19th Fantasy Flight from Spokane International Airport, although it was United Airlines that created the event in 1997 and hosted the children until 2008 when a scheduling snafu left no plane available for Spokane. Alaska quickly stepped up to save the day, and bring a new specialness to the event, going aloft for a real flight.

United had taxied the planeload of kids around the airport, but employees of Alaska, which of course is more familiar with the North Pole than any airline, asked "why can't we actually take off with the kids?" So in fact they did, carrying 60 kids and their elves aloft for a 40 minute flight to Santa's home. And so it has been since then.
 
Alaska pilot Eric Hrivnak 
So Saturday afternoon the children are brought to the airport where each meets his or her "buddy elf." Then, with the help of the TSA workers, who look the other way as metal jingle bells on the kids' and elves' clothing set off alarms, they all pass through security and board the Alaska flight, which upon takeoff becomes Santa 1 with First Officer Eric Hrivnak, at the controls.
 
For the eight years since that first Alaska flight, the airline has partnered with Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 created by Steve Paul, "Elf Bernie" on flight day. But the rest of the year Paul is president and CEO of little non-profit and he spends the months preparing for the event by working with organizations, gathering sponsors and overseeing details, all on a $200,000 budget that includes in-kind, biggest of which is the Alaska flight.
 
Paul isn't a wealthy do-gooder who commits to the annual flight as his philanthropy. Rather he has a fulltime job as project manager for Spokane-based Ecova, a national utility and energy-management company
 
It is Paul who is also responsible for the details of making the day special for the kids and, as he once told me,  "I know I can't fix the situations in life that have brought these children to the place we find them. But I can give them a brain full of amazingly magical memories of a day when they took their first airplane ride, when they touched their first reindeer and had their own elf as best friend, and met Santa in his North Pole home."
 
Hrivnak and his Alaska crew are part of the magic since 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 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.
 
Then the pilot lands the plane on the other side of the Spokane airport and the kids and their elves get off, to be greeted by Santa, Mrs. Clause, extra elves and a few live reindeer.
 
A key moment of magic occurs for each child when they have their personal visit with Santa.
 
As Paul told me, "When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them tell us what they want for Christmas. 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."
 
Longtime readers of the column will be familiar with the story since this has become my regular Christmas season offering after my friend Blythe Thimsen, editor of Spokane Coeur d'Alene Living magazine, first alerted me to this amazing community experience six years ago. She served as an elf on that year's flight and wrote of the experience for her magazine.
 
But except for coverage by Seattle's Q13 a couple of times, and again this year, including a piece they sent to CNN two years ago that gained the event national coverage, I've been struck by the general lack of media attention.
 
Although Alaska's CEO Brad Tilden wrote about the event in the Alaska Airlines magazine a couple of years ago, neither the airline nor Paul and his organization have sought attention for themselves for their involvement.

But there is a high-visibility desire on the part of Alaska crew members to participate, as evidenced by the fact that after several years as the captain of the trip, Hrivnak was beaten out last year by other pilots who wanted to guide the trip.

But he made sure he was back at the top of the list this year and thus will be the captain at the controls again this year. 
 
In fact, because this is Paul's 15th year guiding the event, which touches him each year as he experiences using "the power of Santa and Christmas to bring an over-the-top memory for kids usually consumed with worry," I thought of making this column about him.

But when I mentioned that intent to Paul, whom I talk with each year for the column, he seemed to actually bristle at the idea of my focusing on him.

"This event is NOT about me. Never was and never will be," he emailed me. "This event is about injecting a wondrous and magical spirit of Christmas into children that most likely would grow up without such a chance. 

"What our leadership team does (all year long) is to sustain an entity that will continue to deliver on our 1st promise to these children - an amazing day of unimaginable memories of happiness, love and pure joy. Nothing more." he said.
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Deal-maker Joe Schocken committed to making sure an Alaska-Delta deal never comes about

The walls of Joe Schocken's office at Broadmark Capital are filled with the financial "tombstones" of deals his firm has done over the years, but he is in the forefront of business-community efforts to make sure one deal doesn't come about. The deal that is anathema to Schocken would be the one-day disappearance of Alaska Air Group into the covetous arms of Delta Airlines.

When Schocken and I first discussed what has become Alaska's David-and-Goliath struggle with Atlanta-based, 10-times-larger Delta, he forcefully said "this community needs an anti-Delta campaign!"

We concluded the conversation that afternoon in the office at his financial-services firm with his reluctantly agreeing with me that we needed to help drive a positive campaign for Alaska because "anti" campaigns don't sell well in Seattle.

But in light of recent events, as Schocken and I visited again yesterday, I found myself saying "You may have been right the first time, Joe, given what has been unfolding of late."

The issue, of course, is growing concern within the business community in Seattle and Spokane that Delta is bent on driving Alaska, through tactical use of its dramatically greater income as one of the world's two largest air carriers, into a merger or acquisition.

But jumping ahead of the battle for passenger dollars at this stage of their competition, the current point of contention between the two airlines is the question of construction of a new international-arrivals facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

And a step that should be key to an "anti-Delta" mood in this community is Delta's blatant effort to insert one of its own onto the Port Commission that governs Sea-Tac operations, getting Des Moines resident Ken Rogers, a Delta pilot who has been on Delta's board for eight years, to seek election to the commission in the upcoming election.

Shocken shook his head as he discussed the logic for that "arrogant action, trying to directly control government decisions for Seattle from Atlanta" to instill anger in this community.

He notes that the projected cost of the international facility, which would benefit Delta more than any other airline but be paid for primarily by travelers on domestic flights of Alaska and other carriers, "isn't money for a new terminal but basically just a sky bridge to a concourse, being positioned as an international-arrival building."

How that eventually plays out, with Delta urging the Port Commission to approve the plan that has doubled in cost to an estimated $608 million with much more cost likely to come as a plan actually begins to be drawn up, is still to be decided by the commission.

  

Alaska's contention is that it's unfair that fees attached to domestic tickets would be used to benefit passengers on international flights and that the airport should go back to the drawing board to devise a less costly plan.

The commissioners are undecided on how the cost share should be parceled out, something Delta would like to influence with its own commission member.  

"Another angle that I think Alaska Airlines executives should be pointing out is how would you like to be an Alaska businessman envisioning a possible Delta takeover," Schocken observed. "As big a problem as it would be for Seattle to lose Alaska as its hometown-focused airline it would be a much bigger problem for the state for which Alaska Airlines is the lifeline and understands the needs of the state. They've grown up together."

"I doubt if the people in Atlanta even know where Alaska is," he chuckled.

"It isn't just trying to own a seat on the Seattle Port Commission that should upset people who are fans of Alaska," Schocken said. "What you have is a series of things coming together, including Delta beginning non-stop service to Sitka. There is no international traffic and little growth coming out of Sitka, thus undermining Alaska is the only purpose behind that flight."

"Finally there's the issue of June 1 reauthorization or the Export-Import Bank, something very important to our region's economy for which Delta's Dick Anderson is the key opponent, claiming it subsidizes its competitors," Schocken said. "Meanwhile Delta is buying planes from Canadian and Brazilian manufacturers and receiving subsidies from their governments. That makes Delta hypocritical, not mention anti-Boeing, but that's another subject."

Schocken emphasized, as he says he does when it makes his Alaska-Delta points in conversation he routinely has at business meetings or cocktail gatherings, to what he says are reactions of tremendous support for Alaska, that he's not hoping to see Delta lose a battle with Alaska. Rather he wants to see Seattle and the Northwest served by two successful airlines.

But in any event, he says "we're only in the first or second inning of a likely long game."

Meanwhile, Alaska keeps its focus on the goal of remaining the nation's most respected domestic carrier, last week being singled out for the J.D. Power customer-satisfaction award for the eighth consecutive year.

It was USA Today, not an Alaska press release, that noted "Alaska Airlines and Jet Blue continued their stranglehold atop the annual J.D. Power customer service satisfaction survey of North American carriers."

Alaska CEO Brad Tilden has avoided negatives about Delta in speeches he's given in recent months.

But he is the guest at next week's Business Journal Live q and a event where he will be interviewed by PSBJ Publisher Gordon Prouty, an environment where he could strategically refer to comments he's heard made by Alaska fans about Delta without saying those things himself.

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Is Delta's focus on Alaska 'just business' or something that has long been unacceptable?

As the awareness grows of Delta Airlines' increasingly obvious designs on the business of Alaska Air, it's intriguing to see that while a majority in the business community are quickly becoming protective of what they view as their hometown airline, there are some who have said to me: "it's just business."

When I did my first column on this issue in December, suggesting that the once beneficial relationship Delta and Alaska had was turning predatory, a number of proponents of the free-market system found themselves agonizing a bit before most sided with my viewpoint.  

John Fluke, an outspoken proponent of the notion of free markets and competition, was sophisticated enough to quickly distinguish between the concept of competing to win, necessary to the success of our economic system, and competition with the goal of driving out competitors.

Fluke, and others like him I have talked to over the weeks of seeking to test viewpoints and plumb attitudes, noted that the key to the acceptability of a competitive approach is the question: "Does it benefit the customers?"

Strategies aimed at driving out competitors have been unacceptable since the dawn of the last century when that great advocate of competition, President Theodore Roosevelt, took the Sherman Anti-trust Act as a bludgeon against corporations that sought to win by gobbling up or driving out competitors.

I decided to do a bit of research on that law that became Teddy Roosevelt's tool in busting trusts and learned that the law declared illegal "all combinations in restraint of trade."

As one explanation put it: "The law directs itself not against conduct which is competitive, even severely so, but against conduct which unfairly tends to destroy competition itself."

So is it in the spirit of competition that Delta would seek to extends its service to, for example, Alaska cities that offer one airline marginal income and offer two airlines only red ink?

Maybe, on the issue of Delta seeking to convince the University of Washington to take Delta's money in exchange for becoming Delta's travel partner. But that's a possible development that hopefully UW's regents would deem counterproductive for the university in the longer-term goal of building allegiances rather than divisiveness.

It has occurred to me that the quest by this community's leadership in seeking to determine whether the possible eventual demise of Alaska through takeover or acquisition would be good or bad for the community would be served by asking those who have been there.

Thus the idea I have been talking up is for a group of business and community leaders to set a meeting with their peers in Minneapolis-St. Paul, which once had its own hometown airline, Northwest, which was absorbed by Delta.

In fact, a city-to-city visit of Seattle-area leaders with their peers in Minneapolis-St.Paul could explore more issues than just air service, since the two regions have long shared economic roots and similarities.

It was almost exactly seven years ago, April 15, 2008, that Delta and Northwest merged to form the largest airline in the world. Has the merged airline that resulted benefitted the Twin Cities? Has it resulted in little change (other than the loss of jobs that Northwest represented to the region)? Or significant?

Might be worth finding out, guided by a recollection of philosopher-poet George Santayana's oft-recalled (and oft-misquoted): "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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Concern among Seattle business people that Delta turning from Alaska partner to predator

There's a growing concern among Seattle-area business leaders that they are seeing a once mutually beneficial partner relationship between Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines changing to one in which Delta seems to be moving from partner to predator.  

There is an obvious agreement within the business leadership that losing Alaska would be a significant blow to the economies of Seattle and the state. And that is leading many toward a conviction that the business community can't merely stand on the sidelines to watch to see what the outcome is of a battle between the world's second largest airline and hometown Alaska.  

Thus if those expressing such concerns are accurate, then Seattle will need to shed its "Seattle Nice" image for a time to forcefully take a position in support of Alaska.

"The business community must take sides in this and do so forcefully and visibly and an important part of its message is that Delta is actually not good for Seattle," suggests Joseph Schocken, president of Broadmark Capital, a successful Seattle boutique merchant bank that focuses on emerging companies.  

"Delta is anti-Boeing, and thus anti-Seattle, with both its dollars and its political clout," Schocken said. "With its dollars, it buys Airbus planes rather than Boeing's and with its political clout it opposes the Ex-Im bank that is important to Boeing's success," he added.

As I talked with various people in the business community, there was an expression of the need to have a pro-Alaska effort, even a forceful one, but not an Anti-Delta one, lest that generate sympathy for the Atlanta-based airline since it is a very successful airline that employs a large number of people and successfully serves parts of the region's air-carrier needs.

Yet as each got into the competitive aspects of the issue, comments frequently turned from support of Alaska to negative on Delta.

As business people discuss this Alaska-Delta struggle, there is a logical defense of free-markets competition but a dark view of competitors who turn predators. And I detected growing sense that predator is what Delta's competition with Alaska has devolved into.

One who best summed up the competition issue was John Fluke, whose family's business leadership, investment focus and philanthropic involvements are widely known and respected, who said: "The notion of free markets and competition are absolutely necessary to the success of our economic system and the effort to gain advantage over competitors, ethically pursued, benefits customers."

But Fluke suggested that the current competitive activities amount to Delta "abusing" the definition of competition, saying "its tactics with everything from current pricing to their philanthropic outreach with nonprofits here are likely to last only as long as it takes to drive Alaska into submission."

"If that happens, then airline tickets will eventually cost more, route structures will become less accommodating and Delta's support of important philanthropic causes will be lower and that would be abusing the real meaning of competition," he added.

Woody Howse, whose Cable & Howse Ventures basically launched the venture-capital industry in this region, exemplified the enthusiasm of Alaska supporters when he said "Alaska Airlines is one of the most community minded, customer serving and socially contributing corporations in our region."

But his comments also quickly turned against Alaska's challenger, noting his view that "Today Alaska Air is being attacked vigorously by the Carpet Bagger Delta Airlines, coming to town with Airbus (not Boeing) airplanes and viciously attacking the Alaska Air routes with competing schedules.  Our Northwest Community must band together and support the company that has so supported us through the good as well as difficult times."

    

"With Delta's current actions and apparent ulterior motive in Alaska's hometown hub, engaging in a process intended to squeeze Alaska Airlines with the objective of acquiring, we customers need to be very alert to the probable outcome if Delta is successful," Howse added.

Mike Kunath, principal and founder of Kunath, Karren, Rinne & Atkin LLC, a successful Seattle investment advisory firm, summed it up succinctly as: "Alaska has been a true supporter of the region. Delta never will be."

Herb Bridge, longtime Seattle civic leader and philanthropist as well as chairman and CEO of Ben Bridge Jeweler for several decades before guiding the company into acquisition by Warren Buffet, notes that corporate acquisitions themselves are not evil.

"It is possible for an important local company to be acquired in a way that allows it to retain local control and oversight, as happened with our acquisition by warren Buffet," Bridge said. "But when the acquisition is pursued in a predatory rather than a friendly manner, not only the shareholders of the pursued company but the community it serves are losers. There is nothing beneficial about Delta's pursuit of Alaska."

Alaska CEO Brad Tilden, retired CEO Bill Ayer and board members are reluctant to get into any Delta-bashing conversation, preferring to focus on Alaska positives.

Ayer, who as Alaska chairman and CEO for a decade before retiring in early 2012 guided the carrier through some of the industry's most tumultuous times, told me "The question of whether Alaska could remain independent has been raised for decades."   

"Our response was that a locally based, independent airline was better for customers, the community, employees, and investors. While there were no guarantees of remaining independent, all we could control was our own performance, and our chances were much better if we did a great job for each of those stakeholders," he said.

 

And as Tilden puts it, "The transformation over the last decade has been all about cost. We're trying to balance low fares and lots of service to the destinations (passengers) want, with a strong and successful company that can grow and buy new airplanes and has the capital to add new services."

 

The financial results are impressive as the parent company for Alaska Airlines and its regional sister carrier Horizon Air made a record $508 million profit in 2013, and the stock continued a steep ascent to five times its value from just five years ago.

 

What needs to happen is for Delta CEO Richard Anderson to be convinced by those who know him well, and that includes some in Seattle, that he is risking a serious downside in creating the potential for an in-your-face attitude among Seattle business people on behalf of Alaska.

For as Schocken summed it up: "There needs to be a real corporate campaign to encourage flying Alaska, discouraging flying Delta and make it unpleasant, hurting Delta's bottomline so Anderson decides that not only isn't it going to be as he thought, but shareholders and board members are getting unhappy.'"

     

Evidence that neither Fluke, Howse nor any of those who echo similar sentiments about Delta targeting Alaska are out of line is Delta's own home page where it headlines "Exclusively for Seattle, 2x miles all year long."  

But Delta's sharpest critics could suggest with a smile that what happens when you click on that link on Delta's home page might prophetically point to where Delta would be for Seattle if they were to push Alaska into a merger. The click leads to a page that says "the requested page could not be found."

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A mission of bringing Magic of Christmas to homeless kids with Alaska North Pole flight

For Steve Paul, bringing the Magic of Christmas to a group of about 60 Spokane-area homeless and foster children in the form of a flight to the North Pole is a year-round focus that he undertook 14 years ago to "use the power of Santa and Christmas to bring an over-the-top memory for kids usually consumed with worry."

 

But the added factor that ensures success of the annual Fantasy Flight is the Magic Dust of human caring and compassion that spreads over all those involved with the event, starting with Alaska Airlines, which makes a jetliner and crew and employees of both Alaska and Horizon Air availabl

Steve Paul, 'Elf Bernie' 

e.

 

So late afternoon this Saturday, 65 children, aged 4 to 10, selected by shelters and community programs in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, will board the Alaska 737-900ER at Spokane International Airport, accompanied by their personal elves, for the approximately half-hour flight to the North Pole. Others on board, in addition to the kids and their elves, will be Dave Campbell, new president of Horizon Air, and other representatives of both Alaska and Horizon.  

This is the eighth year that Alaska has operated the flight for Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 that Paul, a Senior IT Project Manager at Ecova,created and serves as president and CEO. He spends much of the year preparing for the event by working with organizations, gathering sponsors and overseeing details, all on a $200,000 budget that includes in-kind, like the Alaska flight.

Steve Paul with Spokane Mayor David Condon 

So Saturday the children will show up at the airport, meet their "buddy elf" and, with the help of the TSA workers, pass through security despite alarms set off by the metal jingle bells on their clothing. Then they will board Alaska flight 1225, which upon takeoff becomes Santa 1, guided by Paul who, for the day, becomes Bernie, the head Elf.

As the flight nears its conclusion, the passengers will be told to pull the window shades down and chant the magic words that will allow them to land at the North Pole. Then the plane will land on the other side of the Spokane airport to be greeted by Santa, Mrs. Clause, extra elves and a few live reindeer.

A key moment of magic occurs for each child when they have their personal visit with Santa.

As Paul told me, "When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them tell us what they want for Christmas. 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."

Equally priceless is the reaction of Paul and others involved.

 "I know I can't fix the situations in life that have brought these children to the place we find them" he told me. "But I can give them a brain full of amazingly magical memories of a day when they took their first airplane ride, when they touched their first reindeer and had their own elf as best friend."

kids in plane
Kids aboard Santa 1 

Blythe Thimsen, editor of Spokane Coeur d'Alene Living magazine who first alerted me to this amazing community experience five years ago when she served as an elf on that year's flight, says that"from business leaders, to media, to financial support and those who are elves at heart and want to see this organization succeed, support is ever growing."

"With an outpouring of interest and support from volunteers and the community - to the tune of 30 wannabe elves on the wait list, hoping to be assigned a spot as an elf - it is clear that support for Spokane Fantasy Flight continues to grow in the community," she told me.

United Airlines, which has done these North Pole Fantasy Flights in a number of cities since 1992, launched the Spokane flight in 1997 but the United planes didn't take off, merely taxied around the airport. It was while traveling in and out of Spokane around that time that Paul learned of the flight, which has always been amazingly low visibility, and sought to be involved. He not only became involved but took over responsibility for the event in 2000.

 

United continued the Spokane flight until 2007 when the airline failed to assign a plane to the event and Paul turned to Alaska, which not only quickly provided the plane but it's employees asked, "why not take them up for a flight?" So Alaska did.

Since then, the Spokane Fantasy Flight has grown in popularity within the business community, despite remaining little known to the general Spokane population, and has become a source of pride and team building for Alaska and Horizon Air.

To the point where, when I asked Paul if he had the same pilots as in previous years, he said that, in fact, there were a couple of Anchorage-based pilots doing the duty this year but that last year's cockpit crew was trying to buy their way back aboard with "payoff" offers to their replacements, who have remained uninterested!

And little wonder since, as Alaska CEO Brad Tilden, who has been involved in the event first in 2011 when he was still president and once since he assumed the CEO role, put it: "Seeing the effect of this in the eyes of the kids is an amazing experience.

For those who might, for any reason, view this as deluding the children, an elf on one of the flights summed it up best. "If you're a little kid on your first plane ride and your ticket says North Pole, and the shades are drawn, and everyone, including the flight attendants and all the elves are saying the magic words, then who's to say you haven't landed at the real North Pole?"

 

Or as Paul sums it up for the longer-term perspective: "My hope is that the children leave with a stronger sense of belief, not only in the magic of Christmas but in themselves and the possibility of positive things in their future."

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Uniqueness of Alaska's Spokane Fantasy Flight for kids is in the 'magic dust' of human caring

A unique example of the Magic of Christmas will be in evidence in Spokane on Saturday when 66 disadvantaged kids plus their personal elves and a supporting entourage board one of Alaska Airlines largest and newest 737-900s, designated "Santa 1," for a Fantasy Flight to the North Pole.

But the excitement that surrounds Spokane International Airport for this annual event transcends even this special holiday and instead represents the "magic dust" of human caring that settles over airline employees and the local volunteers who make the kids' trip of a lifetime possible.

 

This will be the sixth year that an Alaka plane, with employees

Alaska pilot Eric Hrivnak and friend

 from both Alaska and Horizon Air joining the organizers, has taken off for a 40 minute flight with the kids ages 4 to 10 who are chosen from shelters and community programs in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

 

And it will be the third year that Eric Hrivnak, an Alaska pilot for more than 13 years, has been the cockpit guide for the flight to Santa's home.

He says he decided early on that "I could make it a lot more fun," but confesses he's "never seen anything like what happens with these kids. I saw a counselor crying as she told me of one of her foster kids, 'It's the first time I've ever seen him smile.'"

 

Steve Paul, "Elf Bernie,"

and fan

Steve Paul, president of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 that he has guided for more than six years as the organization that puts on the event, explained that the children selected each year are homeless or from transitional living centers or adoption groups.

 

Each child, as they all get off the bus that has picked them up for their trip to the airport, is greeted by their personal elf and given a t-shirt that says "I believe" on the front and "I've been to the North Pole" on the back. Each also receives a special-issue passport with their picture and the picture of them with their elf.

 

Paul, who is "Elf Bernie" at the event, explains that Hrivnak, the pilot, once the plane has been aloft and is ready to land, helps bring the children into the process of breaking through the North Pole 'protective barrier.'

 

The kids pull down their window shades, do a chant, each 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.

 

Minutes later, the plane lands and the kids have arrived at the North Pole -- in reality, a decorated hangar at the far end of the Spokane airport.

 

The kids leave the plane and walk with their elves down the red carpet, lined with more elves on both sides, and then encounter a fantasy come true: a magician, musicians and face painters, as well as an endless supply of snacks, games, and arts and crafts, plus live reindeer. And, of course, each child receives some specialone-on-one time with the Man himself.

 

That visit with Santa is made forever memorable for each child because, as Paul explains, they were all asked for a list of what they'd like from Santa, and "we took those lists and bought each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what they want, he can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them. The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is just priceless."

 

Bobbie Egan, Alaska's media relations director who participated in the flight last year for the first time, said "I was moved beyond words. Once you see how the lives of these kids are impacted by this experience, the temptation is to want to do it everywhere."

 

Local Spokane area visibility for the annual event has helped grow cash and in-kind donations to a budget of $175,000 this year, with Alaska remaining the largest corporate donor, but to that has been added a new $10,000 donor and "many new $3,000-$5,000 donors," Paul said.

 

The Spokane Fantasy Flight isn't the only one that occurs. In fact, United Airlines, which conducts such flights in 20 cities and has been doing them for 23 years, most for children with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, had 2013's first North Pole flights last weekend in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Antonio and Cleveland.

 

But Spokane is the smallest city in which such Fantasy Flights occur and has thus brought a community focus that would be difficult in a major city. And this is the only Alaska Airlines North Pole flight.

 

United had actually launched the Spokane Fantasy Flight in 1998, but the jetliners didn't take off, rather just taxiing around

the airport. But the event had virtually no visibility beyond the non-profits involved, at first the Spokane YWCA, and the kids and elves who participated.

 

In 2008, Alaska leaped in to take over the event after a United snafu left no plane available for Spokane. Employees of Alaska, which of course is more familiar with the North Pole than any airline, asked "why can't we actually take off with the kids?" So in fact they did, carrying 60 kids and their elves aloft for a 40 minute flight to Santa's home.

 

Alaska CEO Brad Tilden says the carrier loves its involvement with the event. "Reaching these deserving children in this special way touches the hearts of every one of our employees who participates."

 

Despite the uniqueness of the event, it got no visibility until two years later when my friend, Blythe Thimsen, editor of Spokaneand Coeur d'Alene Living, told me about her excitement at getting to be an elf that year and that she'd be writing about in her magazine, providing the first media look at the event. But she was kind enough to let me upstage the magazine's publication date with my first column on the event.

 

Two years ago, KCPQ-TV, Channel 13, in Seattle sent a crew to cover the event and produced a version for CNN, which thus brought national visibility.

 

The first Fantasy Flight occurred in London, England in December 1991, when United Airlines donated a 727 to fly one hundred children from an orphanage to Lapland, Rovaneimi Finland for reindeer sleigh rides and a visit to "Father Christmas Village". The success of the "Fantasy Flight" concept gradually expanded to over forty six cities, providing needy and ill children with an experience of a lifetime.

 

 

Few have summed up the Spokane event better than Gail Spaeth, an Alaska flight attendant who was part of the crew for the first Alaska North Pole flight: "This didn't just make our Christmas, this was our Christmas," she said. "These kids don't have much, so to be a part of something that will provide such a great memory for them is just amazing."

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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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Alaska Air's 'Santa One' flight for Spokane area disadvantaged kids is unique fantasy trip

Sixty disadvantaged kids and their personal elves board  Alaska Airlines' flight 1225, dubbed  "Santa One," Dec. 10 at Spokane International Airport for a Fantasy Flight to "the North Pole" on the 737 900 and a visit with Santa. It's an event that could be described as the place where the real magic dust of Christmas has been scattered, because this special trip is unique in the world.

 

The children, between the ages of 4 and 10, are selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, ID, areas for this once-in-a-lifetime fantasy adventure to Santa's home.

 
 

A number of other airlines, including United and Continental, have been doing the North Pole "flights" in various cities, some for nearly 20 years. But Alaska is the only airline to actually take the kids aloft for their magical trip, in which they pull the window shades down as the flight nears its conclusion, say the magic words that allow them to land at the North Pole, and land at other side of Spokane International Airport.

 

It's there that they're greeted by Santa and Mrs. Clause and an additional host of elves.

 
 

 

"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," explains "Bernie" the Head Elf, better known as

Steve Paul, president and CEO of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the nonprofit group that runs the event.

 

 "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," adds Paul "The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."

 

To ensure that the selection is actually reaching the most deserving children, Paul's non-profit works only with the area's social agencies, which use their selection and screening processes to pull the children who desperately need to create positive Christmas holiday memories.

 

The children are picked up at the Spokane YWCA in the early afternoon and driven to the airport, where each child is given a "passport" to the North Pole and a personal "elf" catering to every need, including a backpack filled with school supplies. Then they board the plane, designated Flight 1225.

 

The 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."

 

Paul is an out-of-work tech exec who has made the project his special commitment. As a result of his efforts, what he describes as "the 150 percent support of the community" and the Alaska involvement, the adventure for the Spokane children is brought closer to reality than in any other place.

 

He spends a number of months in preparation for the big day, lining up donations and contributions that this year amount to $150,000 of cash and in-kind, helping get the kids selected and arranging for the elves and gifts for the kids.

 

Brad Tilton, Alaska Airlines president who will be on hand with his wife for the event, says "the Fantasy Flight is an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. It's a

true delight for the children, who don't get to enjoy Christmas like most of us do and who, in many cases, have never had the chance to fly. And our employees,

who eagerly volunteer every year, get far more back than the time they put in."

 

Alaska and Horizon will have more than four dozen employees participating, from various locations on the airlines' systems. Some will be elves. Others will forego days off to work shifts for local Horizon employees so they can be elves.

 

This has been an amazingly off-the-radar-screen event, both during the eight years that United put the kids on a plane that taxied around the airport, and in the four years since Alaska Airlines came to the rescue of the event when United couldn't free up a plane with Alaska proceeding to turn it into a real airborne flight.

 

But that low visibility is changing as the list of kids registered and waiting has grown to almost 250 and media organizations have started to become aware of this special Christmas Season story. And there are some in the Alaska Airlines organization who understand the one-of-a-kind goodwill that this event represents, particularly because neither the company nor the employees has done this for the sake of visibility.

 

Horizon's Spokane customer service manager David Burris admits the visibility has been low key over the years, partly because broader visibility would only bring pressure to make the event bigger.

 

Is there an opportunity for other cities to follow suit with a special North Pole event?  Alaska officials suggest it would be difficult for the airline to take another plane and crew out of regular service during the heavy-travel holiday time. And Paul acknowledges that while he could provide the know-how to another community, he wouldn't have time to actually do another event over the Christmas season.

 

"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."

 

Paul adds that he is having a movie done "that will in the future characterize the experience. We have a couple of elves who were parents of foster children involved in earlier flights who said the kids were so transformed by the experience that they had to get involved."

 

How real is this trip to the kids? As one elf put it: "If you're a little kid on your first plane ride and your ticket says North Pole, and the shades are drawn, and everyone, including the flight attendants and all the elves are saying the magic words, then who's to doubt that you have landed at the real North Pole? And then you see Santa."

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