Alaska Airlines takes new employees, new assets, and a new look in stride
Alaska Airlines honors those currently in military service and veterans with the livery of this Boeing 737; the plane is often used for Honor Flights, whereby veterans are flown, free of charge, to visit memorials in DC.
I was sitting with Alaska Airlines Manager of External Affairs Tim Thompson when Alaska Airlines Regional Vice President–Alaska Marilyn Romano walked into our May 1 interview, offering me a cookie and a smile. The recorder happened to already be running, capturing just one of the thousands of small interactions that have built the airline’s service-oriented reputation. “It’s friendly, genuine service, even when we don’t know we’re on the record,” Romano laughs.
‘Red to Blue’
Thompson was updating me on Alaska Airlines’ newest milestone in the ongoing integration of its acquired Virgin America assets. On the night of April 24, Thompson was at LAX and Romano was at SeaTac, lending their aid as spokespersons as Alaska Airlines officially transitioned from two systems to one. “Everything that passengers see now is Alaska Airlines: at twenty-nine airports it was an overnight changeover, transitioning from Virgin America red to Alaska Airlines blue,” Thompson says. All flights are now official Alaska Airlines flights, booked through the company’s website and app, and operated by Alaska Airlines personnel. “It was great in that it was just a regular day in our operation,” Thompson says, “and that’s the way it should have been.”
Romano adds, “You want [the transition] to be a non-event… It’s just seamless. Their system kind of goes away, and everything that was being done on the Virgin America side just automatically flows as Alaska Airlines. It was a great non-event for everybody.” The command center organized for the transition was officially shut down on April 30, after several days (including a busy weekend) of smooth operations and non-issues.
“I give a lot of credit to our people,” she continues. “Tim and I really played small roles at the last minute… but we’re talking months and months of a core team going through every possible scenario—what happens if the computer system malfunctions, what happens if a boarding pass doesn't show up on someone's phone—and slowly drawing down the Virgin America system over time so that people didn't even know it was happening.”
Thompson says this switchover puts the airline at about 75 percent integration. While all branding at the airports has switched “from red to blue,” the majority of Virgin America planes still need rebranded exteriors and refurbished interiors to match the rest of Alaska Airlines’ fleet. This process is scheduled to take place over the next eighteen months as planes are pulled from service as part of their regular maintenance cycle.
In addition, Alaska Airlines is refurbishing a number of their Boeing planes to have the same interior package, which features satellite WiFi, seats with power, overhead bins that provide more stowage and make the cabin feel larger, and comfortable lighting. Romano says, “The first [Boeing] planes that are going to be done with the interior packages will be the 737-700 aircraft, which you see flying a lot in the state of Alaska,” and which she and Thompson are both excited about.
Alaska Airlines routes as of May 2018, after the aquisition of Virgin America.
The People Factor
Combining two airlines is a massive undertaking, and untold amounts of work have been going on, largely behind the scenes, since the acquisition was finalized in December 2016.
Notably, in January Alaska Airlines received a single operating certificate (SOC) from the FAA. According to a company’s release, more than 110 employees “logged approximately 70,000 hours; reviewed 346 different operational topics across 136 manuals; analyzed more than 39,000 pages of material; and instituted roughly 1,500 changes to policies and procedures throughout 68 various manuals” to obtain the SOC.
Also in January, Alaska Airlines announced that the Virgin America loyalty program had been integrated with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, and the company transitioned to a single payroll and benefits program.
As one sign of unity, the airline’s employees will soon all sport the same line of uniforms. Earlier this year Alaska Airlines unveiled a new uniform collection by Seattle designer Luly Yang. Alaska Airlines Vice President of Marketing Sangita Woerner says, “The inspiration for our new uniforms came through our brand work and in close collaboration with our employees. We aimed to add signature brand elements, [and] at the same time be comfortable, professional, and practical. The smallest details were considered; employees wanted multiple pockets with zippers and we incorporated those, and we made the shirts longer so they don’t get untucked [while] performing on-the-job duties.”
The many pieces in the new line have been wear-tested by airline employees, and in 2019 nearly one hundred garments will be made available to 19,000 of Alaska Airlines’ 23,000 employees, those that are “forward facing in the company, which would be customer service agents, ramp workers, pilots, and flight attendants,” Thompson says.
Romano adds, “The company has spent a lot of time looking at best practices from other big airlines that have merged… looking at what worked and what didn't work. We found out right away that if we got the culture right and we set our people up for success, everything else would be a lot smoother.”
Virgin America was a relatively young airline, logging ten years of operations at the time of the acquisition, so Alaska Airlines was particularly sensitive of the fact that many Virgin America employees built the company from the ground up. “There were employees there from day one, before they ever flew an airplane. So there is a very personal connection,” she explains.
Alaska Airlines organized a group called Culture Champions from each airline that would meet and share cultures, ideas, and concerns. Romano explains that, for example, Virgin America emphasized taking care of their customers, whom they called guests, a nomenclature Alaska Airlines has now adopted.
The group came to Alaska to learn a little more about the airline’s namesake and roots, as the airline has a deep and persistent relationship with its eponymous birthplace. Alaska is a land of aviation, with planes serving as taxis, school busses, and commuter vehicles. “Flying in the state of Alaska is personal,” Romano says, since flying is often a community’s only connection to work, healthcare, or family.
A rendering of the new $50 million, 100,000-square-foot Alaska Airlines hangar slated for completion this year.
Home in Alaska
It’s been eighty-six years since a group of Alaskan pilots offered up their flight services, kicking off what would become an airline with decades of experience that—with the Virgin America acquisition—is now the fifth largest domestic airline in the United States. Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden says, “We’ve been calling Alaska home for over eighty-six years, and the investments we are making, in both people and infrastructure, deepen our commitment to our guests.”
Alaska Airlines has developed a $100 million “2020 Great Land Investment Plan,” which includes rebranding or renovating the eleven passenger terminals it owns in-state, constructing a $50 million hangar in Anchorage, and adding three 737-700 cargo jets, replacing its iconic “combi” cargo and passenger planes, all expected to launch by 2020. The combis have already been phased out, and Romano reports that work at the Kodiak, Cordova, and Yakutat terminals is substantially complete, and renovations at Kotzebue, which needed to be expanded, will wrap up this summer.
She expects that the new 100,000-square-foot hangar in Anchorage on the east side of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport will be completed in the third quarter of this year. In addition to the excitement of a new maintenance facility that can accommodate two 737-900 aircraft, Romano is excited to share that this hangar will also include the company’s Alaska regional headquarters.
Its current facility was built to accommodate a reservation center that seated more than one hundred employees, back in the day when plane reservations tickets were made by phone. Today the building houses seventeen employees who work in public affairs, sales and community marketing, human resources, operations, and IT, in addition to a ground service department.
“We've got a beautiful facility down there… We're excited about the opportunity to work [in the midst of] our maintenance and engineering operation, which is an important part of running a great airline,” Romano says.
Thompson adds, “That hangar is a commitment to Alaska. It’s a $50 million facility that signifies we’re here for the long-term.”
In January Alaska Airlines debuted a new uniform collection designed by Seattle-based Luly Yang.
In the Community
The commitment to Alaska isn’t just through the infrastructure itself, but contributing to Alaska’s economy through the privately-funded project at a time when every construction project matters. “Between the hangar project and the remodel and updates of the eleven terminals we own around the state… by the time all are finished, well over 500 people will have worked on these projects,” Romano says. “From a business and economic standpoint, we feel very proud of that. Alaskans are working on these buildings.” Alaska Airlines contracted with architecture firm McCool Carlson Green and general contractor Kiewit to construct the hangar.
Outside of direct economic contributions such as infrastructure development and providing more than 1,800 jobs, Alaska Airlines invests heavily in Alaska’s communities. Thompson says the airline gave nearly $4 million in in-kind and cash donations last year in Alaska. He says, “It's important that not only the business community but the communities that we're in understand that we're there to help partner with them for the causes that matter.”
Alaska Airlines focuses much of its philanthropic efforts on youth and education, Romano says, though one project near and dear to both Romano and Thompson is the Honor Flight program.
The Honor Flight concept was started by a Lower 48 carrier, which developed a program through which WWII veterans would be flown for free to Washington DC to see the memorials. In 2012, Romano received a call regarding Robert Ingram, a WWII veteran in his early nineties living in Fairbanks. “His one wish was that he could see the memorials before he died… It’s probably one of my favorite days working for Alaska Airlines… when I got to hand him two airline tickets and said we’re going to get you to Washington DC,” she says. Thompson now organizes two Honor Flights a year for the Last Frontier Honor Flight program, transporting about fifty veterans annually at no cost and providing reduced airfare for the veterans’ companions.
The five-day trip is a logistical challenge that Thompson is happy to take on. “[The Honor Flight] program fits with Alaska Airlines… we have a lot of military members and reservists that work for Alaska Airlines.” Alaska Airlines operates a plane that has been painted to honor the US Armed Forces, which whenever possible is used for the Honor Flights.
Alaska Airlines hasn’t always flown to DC; in fact, eleven years ago Alaska Airlines didn’t fly to Hawaii, and now the airline boasts more departures from the West Coast to Hawaii than any other US domestic airline. The company has been experiencing significant growth, and the Virgin America merger was a deliberate step to aid that growth.
Thompson says that Alaska Airlines’ new combined revenue is $7.9 billion, and in 2017 the airline flew 44 million passengers to various destinations; the company operates 307 airplanes with 1,200 daily departures serving 118 destinations.
Even amidst all this growth, the company continues to focus on running “a safe airline on time” and was recognized for these efforts in April when Airline Quality Rating, a “multifactor examination of airlines based on mishandled baggage, consumer complaints, on-time performance, and involuntary denied boardings,” ranked Alaska Airline Number 1 for the second consecutive year. Romano says, “At this particular time in our company's history, with everything going on… it’s a testament to our front line employees who are running the operation day-to-day that they deliver the way that they are.”
Tilden says, “I believe we continue to succeed as an airline here and everywhere we fly because of our values that are deeply rooted in the pioneering Alaska spirit—always striving to do the right thing for our employees and the communities where they live and work.”
Tasha Anderson is the Associate Editor for Alaska Business.