Alaska Airlines' Chief Riding Out the Turbulence

Bill Ayer has weathered a reorganization, safety worries and economic challenges, but he feels the worst has passed and customer loyalty will keep his company on top.

Still, Ayer said Menzies executives are committed to making Seattle one of their smoothest operations, and he believes they are well on their way.

"It was unfortunate that we ended up with such a bumpy situation early on, but I have a lot of confidence that they've got their arms around it," he said. "I think it's going to work out just fine."


Ayer and Alaska faced a new host of safety questions last month, when the airline reported various problems with pressurization systems on five airplanes in 10 days.

Initial inquiries found no links among the incidents, and they occurred on at least three airplane models of varying age. Still, Alaska initiated a program to inspect pressurization systems on all of its 110 jets.

"We just think that's prudent, to ask the question," Ayer said. "So far nothing has turned up anything that is systemic or out of the ordinary."

Ayer understands well that late flights, lost luggage and operational missteps that scare passengers and damage planes are not good for business.

Fortunately for Alaska, none of it seems to have had a terribly detrimental impact on the carrier at least not yet.

Alaska posted a profit of $55 million last year excluding one-time charges, joining Southwest and AirTran as the only major U.S. airlines to end 2005 in the black.

Alaska carried 23.2 million passengers in 2005, up 4.5 percent from the previous year, and the trend is continuing. Alaska reported Friday that it carried 1.71 million passengers in February, up 5.6 percent from a year ago.

To be sure, one reason for Alaska's higher passenger counts is the health of the economy, which is much more vigorous than it was in 2004.

Ayer said customer loyalty, earned over many years as Seattle's "hometown" airline, has helped.

He and other members of the airline's executive team periodically call frequent fliers who write in with complaints.

"As I've done these calls over the months, I've found a lot of people that basically say, `That was a bad experience, and you guys should have done this, that or whatever.' But they come back and say, `But you know, I really want to see this work, because I like Alaska Airlines,' " Ayer said.

"There's a lot of good will that's been built up over a lot of years. ... We don't want to wear out our welcome with that. We've got to get back to our standards."

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or


Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President, Alaska Airlines

Age: 51

Family: Lives in Bellevue with his wife, Pam, and daughter, Elizabeth.

Work history:

1995 present: Alaska Airlines. Joined the company as vice president of marketing and planning. Became president in 1997; chief operating officer in 1999; chief executive in January 2002; and chairman in May 2003.

1982 1995: Horizon Air. Held several marketing and operations positions, was senior vice president of operations.

1980 1982: Founder and president of Air Olympia, a small commuter airline.

1978 1980: Regional manager, Piper Aircraft company.

Board appointments: Puget Energy, The Museum of Flight, University of Washington Business School Advisory Board, Angel Flight America

Education: B.A. Economics, Stanford, 1976. M.B.A. University of Washington, 1978.

Source: Alaska Airlines


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