By Constance von Muehlen
Today, I’m writing with gratitude and immense pride to tell you about some truly heroic efforts carried out by our employees and communities.
This is about people coming together in a powerful way and demonstrating the very best of what Alaska is all about:Stepping up when we’re needed, serving our communities, working together as a team, and providing remarkable care for people. This really is an example of Alaska at our very best.
Recently, Alaska Airlines employees answered the call to provide domestic charter assistance to the U.S. government to transport Afghan refugees fleeing their country and seeking safety in ours.
Within a matter of hours of receiving our initial instructions from U.S. Transportation Command, we had employees signing up—flight attendants and pilots, customer service agents, catering coordinators, charter coordinators and a maintenance technician—all wanting to help.
It was a mission of mercy and incredible caring by our employees, who represent the best of who we are at Alaska.
Although we cannot provide flight details (per Department of Defense rules for the safety of refugees), I can share that Alaska served proudly.
The aircraft we used for these charter flights was one of our “Honoring Those Who Serve” planes. Distinct in its military livery, the aircraft was greeted upon landing with a full military honor guard. As a veteran, I am truly touched by this.
Here are a few of our crew’s powerful stories from the efforts:
For Captain Kevin, the media images of the evacuation in Kabul were intensely personal. Having served as a C-17 pilot in the military for 20 years, including flying into Afghanistan after 9/11, he had a deep appreciation for the military nature of this operation. “I was thankful to help the Afghan people again and happy to help Alaska support a humanitarian crisis,” said Kevin.
Before Flight Attendant Carole began the trip, her husband went to the dollar store and bought all the stuffed animals and Matchbox cars that he could buy. She said that while the adults onboard were visibly exhausted, the children warmed to the crew quickly and wanted to play—up and down the aisles they went, bouncing in their chairs, running from the lavs delighted and scared by the whooshing flush of the toilets. “We opened up the galley and gave them whatever they wanted. Our catering team did an incredible job seeing that we had treats for the kids and extra items.” Carole said the experience was completely different from anything she had ever done, which is significant as she is Alaska’s #1 seniority flight attendant with 54 years. “It was important that we did all we could to help them,” she said. “I am very proud of our company and crew.”
Flight Attendant Katherine admitted she was a bit trepidatious before the flight. “As a mother I was worried that my heart would just shatter if I saw children traveling without their parents, that I would want to scoop them up and take them home.” But the children were indeed accompanied by their families – some parents and children, some grandparents and grandchildren and several infants. The community relations team had boarded bottles, formula, diapers, wipes and each family with an infant received a packet. They were so appreciative of everything – especially the food, with fresh apples, juice, and hot tea with lots of cream and sugar being favorites. Kaye entertained the younger children showing photos of her kids and her Corgi back home. She and fellow crew members introduced them to M&Ms, which they had never had. “It was incredible. I have so much pride right now for my airline and my country,” said Katherine.
Seattle CSA Aria, who speaks the Afghan Persian language served as an interpreter helping the refugees and being a go-between for the crew. Guests were gracious and kind, thanking crews through the language barrier by putting their hands over their hearts.
First Officer Patrick said, “I was honored to be part of this, and I will hold the memories close forever. They had nothing. No luggage, just hope.” He praised his co-workers. “The flight attendants were absolutely amazing. They handled the cultural differences with grace and respect. They went far and above their regular duties – nothing but admiration and praise for them.”
Although much of the crew was picked on seniority, Captain Michael was just in the right place at the right time. “I was called off reserve and felt very fortunate to have been able to participate and help out in the operation in what is for those people, was an unbelievably life changing event.” He said that seeing the kids being kids onboard made him smile. “Smiles are universal in any language.”
Although we cannot share much more than this, I can say that we plan to be available for more of these charters in the future, if we are needed, and we’ll ask other employees to answer the call.
If you know our company’s history, there are moments when our employees stepped up and cared for those who desperately needed a hand. That started 90 years ago when our founders delivered critical supplies and medicine in The Great Land, and it’s continued through the years, such as the Berlin Air Lift in 1948 and in Operation Magic Carpet to evacuate 49,000 Jews from Yemen in 1949-1950. More recently, you saw it in 2014 with our evacuation flights into Cabo San Lucas to rescue stranded travelers after Hurricane Odile.
You see it every day with our people, in moments big and small. And now we have once again stepped up in a big way for people who need us most, and it will be remembered as another proud chapter in our history here at Alaska Airlines.
Thank you to our employees and community partners who helped in this effort, for their service and dedication, for making all of us proud, and for reminding us how far we can go when we come together.
(*) Constance von Muehlen is Chief Operating Officer of Alaska Airlines