Another milestone: Flight attendant No. 3,000 gets her wings
Not many employees make history on their first day on the job, but that's exactly what Erin Willison did Wednesday when she became the first Alaska Airlines flight attendant to hold system seniority No. 3,000.
"This really makes me feel special," Willison said shortly after being presented with shiny new flight attendant wings by Alaska's No. 3 seniority Flight Attendant Carole Scallon. Willison was one of 50 new flight attendants to graduate this week.
Over the years, more than 3,000 people have been Alaska Airlines flight attendants, but this is the first time the company has had that many on its roster at the same time.
Willison's designation as flight attendant 3,000 came by chance. Upon completion of five weeks of initial training, seniority numbers were assigned to each member of the flight attendant class according to date of birth, with the highest numbers going to the youngest people.
Willison previously worked for 10 years as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines. Her starting seniority number at the Minneapolis-based airline was 10,252. She was still on reserve when she left.
"I accepted a buyout offer from Northwest in 2008 in order to stay home and raise my family, but some friends at Alaska encouraged me to join them," says Willison. "I've always liked Alaska Airlines because the company's spirit and philosophy of customer service matches my own, so here I am."
She describes being a flight attendant as "a calling."
"I've always had a sense of wanderlust," says Willison. "I went to Alaska for the first time on a training flight. Since we were not yet official flight attendants, we had to sit in the regular passenger seats. My seatmates on those flights included a tugboat driver, a commercial fisherman and someone flying to the Lower 48 for surgery. All of them said they just love Alaska Airlines. That was the most inspirational part of my whole training experience."
By presenting Willison with her wings, Scallon was continuing an Alaska Airlines tradition that began in 1989 when Marcia Broyles, the No. 1 flight attendant at the time, pinned wings on Jodi Braa, the first flight attendant to hold seniority No. 1,000. Eleven years later, Kathy Smith, the airline's second most senior flight attendant at the time, pinned wings on Sherri Anastasi, the first to hold seniority No. 2,000.
"I'm not an eight-to-five type of person," says Braa, who has moved up the seniority list to No. 611 during her 24 years with the airline. "I love having a flexible schedule, traveling and meeting new people. Now that I'm relatively high on the seniority list, I can bid some nice schedules, be a wife and mother and still have a career. It's been the perfect job for me."
In 2000, Anastasi was presented with a special name badge inscribed "Sherri F/A 2,000," which she never wore on the job for fear of losing it. She now holds seniority No. 1565.
Anastasi acknowledges, "it's tough being on reserve as a new flight attendant," but advises Willison and her classmates to "hang in there, because it gets better as you move up the seniority list. And remember, it's the crew, not the destination that makes for a fun flight."
Founded in 1932, Alaska Airlines didn't hire its first flight attendant until 1945. Her name was Maxine Barnham. Born in Skwentna, a village northwest of Anchorage, the pioneer flight attendant was married to a former bush pilot serving in the Navy.
Flight attendant No. 2 was Renee Brust, whose husband was a B-26 pilot killed during World War II. The third original flight attendant was Katherine Anderson, who had flown with Midcontental Airlines and brought that company's training manual with her. It became Alaska Airline's first flight attendant manual after being rewritten to reflect flying conditions in the far north.
One of Alaska Airlines' longest-serving flight attendants was Broyles, who retired in 1998 on the day she became the first flight attendant to receive a 45 year service pin.
"If I remember correctly, there were only 20 of us ‘stewardesses' when I was hired," says Broyles. "Back then, it took a long time to move up the seniority list. The way Alaska Airlines is growing now, flight attendants can advance pretty quickly these days."
Indeed. Willison and her classmates won't be at the bottom of the seniority list for long. Alaska is in the process of hiring more than 300 additional flight attendants this year.