Fifteen years ago to the day (Oct. 12, 2007), an Alaska Airlines pilot turned on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. In 30 minutes, we’ll begin our descent to Honolulu International Airport.” He may have even provided a weather forecast (partly cloudy with highs in the mid-80s).
Though it may sound very routine, history was made when he ended the announcement with three little words: “Welcome to Hawai‘i.”
To ensure the islands were represented accurately with care and consideration, the Pacific Islander Alliance was established ahead of the airline’s inaugural flight to the Aloha State. The group comprised 20 employees, led by Honolulu’s own Jill Tanga (training delivery specialist) and Lucy Purcell (HR technology manager). “To P.I.A., authentic representation is important in addressing stereotypes and misconceptions around Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities,” shares Purcell. “There are so many wonderful aspects about us to share and we want to be a part of sharing that narrative.”
Now boasting more than 260 members, P.I.A. has advised on in-flight menus, onboard music and company communications. It also supports community events, hosts volunteer and fundraising opportunities, and organizes Pacific Islander-centered panel discussions. Just recently, the group sprang into action to support those affected by the earthquake in Tonga as well as partnered with Bishop Museum to create a learning series for Hawaiian History Month.
Daniel Chun, sales, community and public relations director–Hawai‘i, explains, “You find these employees that are super passionate and are great champions of this group — because this is an unpaid gig on top of their day jobs — and they invest their heart and soul into it to come up with programming that’s going to benefit the employees and company. It’s just going to make us all better when no matter who you are, what background you come from or how you identify, you see yourself in the company.”
That message is a personal one for Chun, who, upon joining the company in 2011, felt the impact firsthand of what it means to be not only seen and understood but accepted and celebrated, too. “I’m openly gay, but at that point professionally, I don’t think I was necessarily as free and open as I wanted to be,” he shares. “I wasn’t hiding it, but I wasn’t completely out. What really struck me was when Alaska hired me, they were going to put together an announcement and send it out across the wire nationally. I included that I volunteered and served as the executive director of the Rainbow Film Festival. When the draft came back, I was just so proud that one of the main things they mentioned was my role with the Honolulu Gay & Lesbian Cultural Foundation.
“That’s something that really stood out and is one of the reasons why I absolutely love our company,” he adds. “There’s this really genuine desire to make sure that everyone is seen, heard and feels like they belong.”
This “culture of care,” as Chun dubs it, is what Alaska Airlines is all about. In fact, it’s what attracted the Mililani resident to the company in the first place.
“I have always found that Alaska’s heart has been in the right place,” says the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa graduate. “I know I can always trust it. Now, we’re not perfect, no company is, but I can always trust that the company will do the right thing or will strive to do the right thing. If we mess up, we are on a constant journey to learn and improve and ultimately be a better company for it.”
In the 15 years since Alaska Airlines began flying to and from Hawai‘i, it’s expanded its service to four islands and now offers seven nonstop flights to West Coast cities, including Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego. Beyond that, though, it’s also donated millions of dollars to hundreds of local nonprofit organizations that support Hawai‘i’s next generations, a healthy tourism industry, medical and social efforts, and more. Past recipients include the Great Aloha Run, Make-AWish Hawai‘i, Aloha United Way, Girl Scouts of Hawai‘i, ClimbHI and Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association’s Citizen-Scholar Awards.
More than gifting monetary donations and free roundtrip tickets (but, hey, those are pretty great, too), Alaska Airlines is known to think outside of the box when it comes to community outreach.
Its collaboration with the state Department of Education on a project called “Paint the Plane” (see aircraft below) — one of Chun’s personal favorites — serves as the perfect example.
“We were preparing to celebrate our fifth anniversary and we really wanted to do something big to honor Hawai‘i. We love having fun … and the idea came up for us to paint one of our airplanes for Hawai‘i. We really wanted to involve our young people to come up with the design,” says Chun.
“We received more than 2,700 entries from every grade level on every island … and we selected a Kaiser High School junior named Aaron Nee,” he continues. “We awarded cash scholarships to Aaron along with the top design winners from every grade level from K-12. Aaron’s design adorned our Spirit of the Islands airplane that was flying around our network all the way until earlier this year when it was retired.”
Alaska Airlines also partnered with travel2change, a nonprofit that encourages travelers to make a difference by connecting them with the community through meaningful experiences, such as working taro fields, exploring local farms, venturing on an outrigger canoe, participating in beach cleanups and more. The company also bolstered Kanu Hawai‘i’s Pledge to Our Keiki, an initiative created by students from across the state that asks visitors and residents alike to respect, care and preserve their island home. Alaska Airlines employees made the pledge and hope their guests do the same.
“My favorite thing is to be able to support this place that I love through a company that shares the same desire of caring for this place and making sure that we improve Hawai‘i for everyone who lives here and everyone who calls Hawai‘i home, but also for everyone who has the good fortune to visit, as well,” says Chun who adds that another favorite part of his job is that he gets to say “yes” to philanthropic efforts a whole lot more than he has to say “no.”
On the horizon, Alaska Airlines plans to accelerate its sustainability efforts. It’s had a comprehensive recycling program since the ’80s and just recently removed millions of pounds of single-use plastic from its fleet by eliminating plastic water bottles, straws, packaging and cutlery and replacing them with compostable options that won’t end up in a landfill.
“There’s very real action happening to reduce our impact on the environment because we do know that air travel overall has an incredible impact,” says Chun. “However, air travel is a very necessary thing to connect communities and for us to see friends and family, so it’s about how we can do it in a more sustainable and more responsible way. That’s super important to us and is something we’re working on day in and day out.”
Acknowledging that the biggest hurdle comes from jet fuel, Alaska Airlines has a goal to become the most fuel-efficient airline by 2025. It also aspires to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040 — 10 years earlier than the industry’s goal of 2050.
“As we mark 15 years of flying to Hawai‘i this year, we really want to help keep it strong and beautiful for many future generations to enjoy,” concludes Chun.