History by Decade
The company that ultimately became Alaska Airlines was born in 1932 when Linious "Mac" McGee painted "McGee Airways" on the side of a three-passenger Stinson and started flying out of Anchorage. In 1934, McGee merged with Star Air Service, creating the largest airline in Alaska with 22 aircraft. Flying in those days wasn't scheduled. You typically flew when the plane was full, be it passenger, furs or groceries. Finances were tight, but perseverance ruled the day. Business expanded in ‘37 with the purchase of Alaska Interior Airlines. Late that year, McGee sold Star to a group led by one of his former pilots, Don Goodman, who renamed the carrier Star Air Lines. The 1938 creation of the Civil Aeronautics Authority to regulate airlines signaled the end of the true bush-flying era.
Star Air Lines received most of the routes it wanted from the CAA but was denied the coveted Alaska/Seattle run. That went to Pan American. Star bought three small Alaskan carriers in 1942, changed its name to Alaska Star Airlines and then Alaska Airlines in 1944. The company grew despite a shortage of workers during the war, feuds with the CAB, and cash troubles that had employees paying for fuel out of their own pockets. In the late ‘40s, charter operations overshadowed scheduled service, and Alaska became the largest charter operator in the world. Using surplus military aircraft, it flew everywhere, carrying food in the Berlin Airlift and refugees to the settlement of Israel.
The airline expanded in 1950 with the purchase of two more small Alaskan carriers. Under CAB mandate, the far-flung charter business of the ‘40s was ended. But Alaska's dream came true in ‘51, when it received authority to fly from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Seattle and Portland. The CAB forced what it considered a business-saving change in management a short time later. As a result, Alaska's financial footing was improved, though still tenuous, when Charlie Willis, a decorated World War II pilot, came aboard as chairman and CEO in ‘57. A born marketer, he ushered in one of the most colorful eras in company history, and brought in-flight movies to the nation's skies for the first time.
While the jet age was just coming to Alaska Airlines in the 1960s, the marketing age was in full stride. Flight attendants wore Gay ‘90s and Russian Cossack costumes. Charters were flying to Russia, and in-flight announcements were turned to rhymes.
A life vest neat is beneath each seat.
They're stored so we won't lose ‘em.
Now fix your eyes on the stewardies.
They'll show you how to use ‘em.
Alaska became the first commercial carrier to fly the Lockheed Hercules, hauling drilling rigs to Alaska's oil-rich North Slope and later to the jungles of Ecuador. The Boeing 727, the company's signature aircraft for 25 years, joined the fleet in the mid-60s. Alaska debuted in Southeast Alaska at Sitka in ‘67, and a year later merged with two long-time Southeast airlines, Alaska Coastal-Ellis and Cordova.
Alaska was on the brink of collapse when the Board prescribed a change in management in 1972. A new team, led by Ron Cosgrave, took the helm. The financially faltering ship was righted, and pains were taken to improve customer service, particularly on-time performance. In ‘73, the company turned a profit and, for the first time in years, there appeared to be prospects for long-term stability. Bruce Kennedy, an integral part of Cosgrave’s team, became CEO in ‘79, the same year U.S. skies were deregulated. Alaska was one of only three carriers that pushed for deregulation, knowing significant growth would be impossible without it. At the time, the airline served 10 cities in Alaska and one - Seattle - in the lower 48. Its fleet numbered 10.
Alaska expanded in a measured, yet opportunistic fashion throughout the 1980s. Following the ‘79 start of service to Portland and San Francisco, expansion over the next five years brought Alaska to Southern California, Oakland, San Jose, Spokane, Boise, Phoenix and Tucson and saw resumption of service to Nome and Kotzebue. Revenues and profits soared. Alaska Air Group was formed in ‘85 as a holding company for the airline and a year later acquired Horizon Air and Jet America Airlines. In a move bolstering its north-south route structure and complementing the seasonal nature of travel to Alaska, the airline launched service to Mexico in 1988. Growth there has been dramatic.
With the growing success of low-cost/low-fare carriers, the airline industry changed in fundamental ways in the 90s. Streamlining its cost structure and increasing aircraft utilization, Alaska Airlines reshaped itself faster and more comprehensively than any carrier - all while maintaining a competitive advantage in customer service. The new motto, "For the same price, you just get more," resonated with customers. When coupled with an unmatched market presence on the West Coast, the recipe added up to record passenger traffic and greater profitability.
The current decade has seen Alaska Airlines stretch its wings across the Lower 48 to Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Newark, Orlando and Washington, D.C. The airline also has crossed the Pacific with much-heralded service to the Hawaiian Islands and added more destinations in Mexico. The transition to an expanded, all-Boeing 737 fleet means greater fuel savings and other efficiencies and respect for the environment. No matter how or where Alaska Airlines grows next, it will always maintain its commitment to providing genuine, caring customer service.