Airline Lament -- Whatever Happened to Alaskan? With Remembrances of PSA, Western Airlines, and AirCAL

By John C. Dvorak

summer 2005

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air used to be a gem, one of the best carriers on the West Coast. It would be interesting to understand what went wrong. I fly them only when I have to, usually between SFO and Seattle. They used to fly to Port Angeles from Seattle and that was convenient for me since I have a summer home in that area. But they abandoned the route because it was unprofitable. Now Kenmore Air (a puddle jumper carrier with an amazing record and excellent reputation going back to just after WWII) services the area and charges half as much as Alaska/Horizon did and it's more fun to fly with them. Somehow they can make money where Horizon couldn't. And you don't have to go through the normal security nonsense since the carrier is exempt. If you ever want to go island hopping this is the carrier with the seaplanes that can take you anywhere on a charter.

Meanwhile, and as I said, I avoid flying Alaska anywhere. The Alaska Airlines on-time thing has gotten to be ridiculous. The last 10 times I've flown them half were late, often by hours. I now fly Southwest which is hardly ever late.

So whatever happened to Alaska Airlines? It went from first to worst. Alaska used to serve the best food too. It was actually edible. On the West Coast they used to run lots of TV commercials ridiculing the other airlines and the crap they served . Then one day a bean-counter didn't like what he saw and that was the end of the food.

The deterioration was exacerbated by the crashing of an MD-80 Alaska jet into the Pacific. This was due to a faulty screw gear in the tail fin. This faulty gear never made a lot of sense and seemed like an off-spec part provided by someone not doing their job. Surely an investigation must have turned up something bad since all the MD-80s were grounded.

I loved the MD-80, especially when equipped with those silent P&W engines. It was the smoothest quietest ride in the sky. A dream. Alaskan moved to the 737, a hellish cramped plane. If I want to be in a 737 I'll fly Southwest.

Southwest uses the plane as designed: a crappy bus. First come first serve. All that is missing are straps and standing passengers.

Alaskan still hands out a little sheet with a prayer on it, not a confidence builder in my opinion. Lately the sheets come inside a box of snacks that replaced the once decent meal. I'm uncertain if the prayer is for the flight or the meal. Usually the snacks are dreadful and starchy.

In the summers the Horizon Airlines side of the Alaska Air Seattle terminal used to have a free root beer dispenser pumping out Kempers local brew. It was great. I haven't seen it for a couple of years. There is also a deteriorating coffee service in the terminal hidden halfway towards the end. The last couple of times I was in the terminal the coffee was removed or not serviced and empty.

Years ago Horizon used to fly a fleet of cozy Metros. These small planes held maybe 10-12 people. Then they upped the ante with some Dash-80's. One year the airline made a big deal about going to Bombardier planes. These were hot looking prop jobs with very unusual props. These were going to save money and be a nicer ride they said. About a year later the planes were all gone from that route and Bombardier bought out De Havilland, the makers of the Dash 8.

At one time, years earlier, Alaskan even had a ride you could make to Vladivostok. I never understood what happened to that flight, but by the time I wanted to make the jaunt it was cancelled.

I think part of the problem was losing its specialty status. The rich West Coast wasn't good enough and Alaskan had to add flights to Dallas and Denver and New York despite the inordinate costs and fees. And I'm sure there are a million excuses based on "research" that indicated this was all such a good idea. Leadership by focus groups.

These airlines seem to fall prey to mismanagement over time as the founders are replaced by people with no sense of the business and rely on accountants, consultants and expensive research data. This is the rear-view mirror approach to management. Of course these folks read something like this essay and say I do not know what I'm talking about. Yet they still go out of business.

You see their backassward thinking in buyouts. On the west coast until 1987-1988 we had two superlative carriers, PSA (known for its planes with a smile painted on the fuselage) and Western Airlines. Western was a carrier that featured TV ads sporting a champagne drinking cartoon parrot telling us that Western Airlines was "The only way to fly," as he sipped champagne. Western could actually trace its heritage back to 1925! And the third player was an up and coming carrier - also competitive - AirCAL.

These were great airlines and the owner of Southwest often tells how he modeled his entire business after PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines) including taking part of the name.

PSA was bought out by US Air and Western was "merged" into Delta. American bought AirCAL. These three bonehead carriers were seeing United get into the West coast and saw Alaskan doing well. So they wanted in.. They did so buy buying three quality companies and ruining them, screwing up the market, then abandoning the mess they left behind.

People on the coast still piss and moan about the disappearance of PSA, and this is after nearly 20 years.

PSA was one of the main airliners that had the humorous announcement monologue at the beginning of every flight. I should track down these gags, some carriers still let employees deliver this cornball material - "If you sitting next to a child, or someone acting like a child . . . "travel

PSA was also the most aggressive with dolling up the flight attendants in hot skirts. I recall walking out of an airport in probably the late 1970's. Two leggy and callipygous young women in incredibly short PSA outfits were leaving the terminal and two Western Airline flight attendants watched them go by with one saying to the other, "That's our competition, hon."

The competition ended fast when the drips from USAir bought PSA and thought they could improve on what wasn't broken.

Right after PSA was bought I asked one of the stewardesses about the sudden disappearance of the announcement jokes. "USA Air killed it," she told me. "They thought it was unprofessional. It's OUT!. And they removed the smiles from the planes too." They also changed the color schemes from bright and lively to dull and depressing.

PSA went from fun to dreary in less than a year. In no time the dipshits from USAir had ruined the carrier and then bailed out from the routes they so badly wanted. Essentially Delta did the same thing with Western Air and American seemed to keep some presence but nothing like the promises. The ease of traveling from SFO to LAX (many $29 flights) on the cheap with flights leaving constantly ended with a thud. Worse, we lost the excitement too.

Southwest waltzed in and took over the business.

I don't care if my favorite carrier goes broke, as long as they are trying to please the customer. What I resented was the arrogance of the Delta, American and USAir (especially) thinking that they could do better with zero regard for the customer. We liked the smiles and the jokes out here. These were East coast companies that had no idea about the West Coast. Their stockholders, I suppose, are the real idiots for putting up with it. It never surprised me when these hotshot companies started to bleed money while watching JetBlue and Southwest roll in the profits. We are witnessing their demise today. In fact, it started in 1987.

United isn't much better. But they did keep some PanAM routes they bought after that poor company, one of the greatest carriers in history was mismanaged to dissolution. United never really made the botched buyouts the other carriers did. The United mistakes are still coming in the future. They do not want to be left behind in the bankruptcy derby. United's Ted is a perfect example. Ted is the el cheap-o JetBlue clone that is anything but a clone. I have never in my entire life run into such a surly cabin crew. It's essentially United on the cheap with pissed off underpaid workers wanted to be on the UAL planes. If given a choice I will not fly Ted.

It's apparent that I can complain about airlines forever. But it's not as if I haven't had great experiences too. It's just I do not understand why it goes downhill so easily. I've always wondered why we just don't let the foreign carriers fly domestic routes in the USA. I'm sure Singapore would love to do a SFO-NYC route. But everyone in the industry knows for a fact that except for Southwest, JetBlue and a few others, no American companies would survive. Who wants to fly on a cramped US carrier with lousy food, no leg room, and surly "we're here for your safety" cabin crews when you can fly on Singapore Airlines? The US carriers would be out of business overnight. So much for actually allowing real free enterprise, eh? - end

Related links:

Airline Mergers


Kenmore Airlines


PSA History -- Old-timers site


Western Airlines


Bombardier Timeline




Kemper Root Beer Reviewed


Kemper Root Beer Home Page




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