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Alaska Airlines traces its roots to the hardy pilots who flew the Alaskan "bush" in the 1930s. The airline was assembled through a series of purchases and mergers leading to the creation of Alaska Star Airlines in 1942, which dropped its middle name one year later. Chiefly equipped with a fleet of war surplus aircraft, Alaska built up a substantial charter business in the late 1940s, and participated in the Berlin Air Lift, evacuation of Chinese Nationalists, and transport of Jews to the new state of Israel. Alaska Airlines won federal approval for its first scheduled route linking Portland, Seattle, Fairbanks, and Juneau, in 1951. It introduced its first jetliners a decade later and grew to become a major regional airline. The airline was heavily buffeted by financial and labor strife following federal deregulation in the mid-1980s, but survived to expand service beyond the Pacific Northwest. Alaska enjoys an exceptional safety record with only four serious accidents between 1947 and early 2000.
From the Bush to Berlin
Alaska Airlines grew out of a single-plane company established by Linious McGee (1897-1988) in 1932. McGee Airlines merged with Star Air Service in 1934. Under the leadership of Raymond W. Marshall, the airline aggressively pursued further purchases to create Alaska Star Airlines in 1942. The middle name was formally dropped on May 2, 1944, narrowly beating out a competitor who had also applied for the name Alaska Airlines.
Following the end of World War II, Alaska Airlines acquired a fleet of surplus military aircraft, including DC-3, DC-4, and C-46 transports. In addition to providing charter passenger and cargo services in the Pacific Northwest, these planes participated in the 1948 Berlin Airlift (ferrying supplies to the city's "free" Allied zones after Soviet forces sealed the East German border), evacuating Chinese Nationalists during the last stages of the 1949 Communist revolution, and carrying Jews from around the world to the new State of Israel.
New Jets, Markets, and Challenges
Thanks to such contracts and the acquisition of two more regional air services, Alaska was the world's largest non-scheduled air carrier by 1950, but it coveted federal permission to offer regular passenger service in the Northwest. It finally achieved this goal in 1951 with "temporary" permission to operate routes between Portland, Seattle, Fairbanks, and Juneau. During the presidency of Charles F. Willis, from 1957 until 1972, Alaska Airlines introduced its first jetliner, a Convair 880, in 1961, and introduced its first Boeing 727s. Alaska expanded service by acquiring Cordova Airlines and several smaller lines serving Southeast Alaska in 1968.
Such aggressive expansion and dramatic hikes in fuel and operating costs nearly bankrupted the Seattle-based airline. Beginning in 1972, Ronald F. Cosgrave guided Alaska's recovery and built a modern jet fleet sporting its new "smiling Eskimo" logotype. Alaska Airlines also maintained its original mission of serving smaller, often remote Alaskan communities with a fleet of sturdy propeller-driven aircraft, chiefly de Havilland Dash-8s.
Federal deregulation of the air transport industry presented serious challenges to Alaska Airlines in the 1980s. Increased competition and inflation put tremendous pressure on costs, profits, and salaries, causing tensions with unions, particularly mechanics and cabin attendants. Under the leadership of Bruce R. Kennedy, Alaska expanded its routes to southern California and to Mexico, inaugurated pioneering service to the Russian Far East. In 1986, it purchased regional carrier Horizon Air, which had been started in Seattle in 1981 by entrepreneur Milt Kuolt and a group of venture capitalists.
Not Spared Tragedy
While Alaska Airlines has enjoyed an exceptional safety record -- all the more remarkable given the rugged terrain it serves -- it has not entirely escaped tragedy. A chartered Alaska Airlines C-4 overshot the runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on November 4, 1947, killing seven aboard and a car passenger on Des Moines Memorial Highway. (As of January 2000, this remains Sea-Tac Airport's only fatal accident.)
One hundred and eleven people died on September 4, 1971, when a 727 struck a mountain on approach to Juneau, and one passenger died when another 727 skidded off the runway at Ketchikan on April 5, 1976. On January 31, 2000, an Alaska Airlines MD-83 crashed into the Pacific Ocean while attempting an emergency landing at Los Angeles, killing all 88 crew and passengers aboard.
Archie Satterfield, The Alaska Airlines Story (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., 1981); Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 1, 2000; Haley Edwards, "Airline Pioneer Milton Kuolt 'left footprints,'" The Seattle Times, May 31, 2008 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/).
Note: This essay was modified on May 4, 2011, to correct the origins of Horizon Air.
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