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Alaska Air CEO Tilden hands off a transformed airline

Brad Tilden was a few months away from retirement, ready to leave a thriving Alaska Air Group to his anointed successor, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the airline industry. Almost overnight, the Seattle-based airline’s passenger count dropped from 130,000 people carried every day to just 4,000.

“It was very scary. We lost $450 million in 30 days,” said Tilden. “For 55 days, we had more cancellations than new ticket sales.”

Even for Tilden, known for his boyish optimism and sunny smile, it was a crushing development. Alaska Chief Financial Officer Shane Tackett said Tilden’s “emotional curve was as acute as I’ve seen it, lower than I’ve ever seen.”

“But he’s an eternal optimist. He doesn’t live in the doldrums very long,” Tackett added. “He’ll come back with renewed spirit and energy and a basic confidence that if you keep working, you’ll ultimately get on a good path.”

Tilden led daily crisis meetings of his executive team, including his designated successor, company president Ben Minicucci, and postponed his retirement to focus on saving the company.

That final task seems close to accomplished now.

On Tuesday, Tilden was welcomed with a torrent of enthusiasm and peppered with questions when he dropped in without notice on a training class for about 50 flight attendants renewing their certification at the airline’s training center in SeaTac.

Tilden told them Alaska’s flights are now up to half of the pre-COVID 2019 passenger level, as vaccinations raise people’s spirits and they begin to think of summer travel. And future ticket bookings for the months ahead are at 70% of the 2019 level.

“I think we are going to have a pretty good summer,” Tilden said to the flight attendants. “Right now, it feels like we have a lot of momentum.”

Having turned 60 in December, Tilden is finally walking off to his delayed retirement. Though he’s officially CEO until the end of the month when Minicucci takes over, Wednesday was his last day in the office.

Catching the aviation bug

Tilden’s father, a Boeing engineer who worked on space projects, was transferred from Huntsville, Ala., to Seattle when his son was 13. Tilden caught the aviation bug here as a young man.

While doing his accounting degree at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Tilden got a summer job as a train attendant for Amtrak that for the first time put some excess money in his pocket. One day that summer, he drove past Renton airport and saw a sign offering an “introductory flight” for $20.

The day after taking that first flight, he came back and booked flying lessons. He had his private pilot’s license by the end of the following summer.

Tilden has been flying small private planes ever since. For one of his retirement projects, he’s helping build a two-seater Carbon Cub, a light, powerful sport plane for backcountry flying that he’ll fly to places like Johnson Creek in Idaho where he can land on a grass strip and camp.

Tilden joined Alaska Airlines in 1991 from accounting firm Price Waterhouse and nine years later was promoted to chief financial officer. He was appointed president of the airline in 2008 and became CEO in May 2012.

In that time he has transformed the airline, initially through aggressive internal growth and then in 2016 by acquiring California-based Virgin America.

And until the pandemic struck, Tilden also delivered consistent profitability.

During his tenure as CEO, up to the 2019 pre-COVID mark, the airline doubled in size both by revenue and number of employees. Profits almost tripled and the stock price quadrupled.

It aggressively added more flights to Hawaii, more transcontinental flights, more flights to vacation spots in Mexico.

Tilden said he pushed for the acquisition of Virgin because “we didn’t want to get acquired” and he believed that meant Alaska had to get bigger. With the airline very strong in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, the clear path to growth was expansion in California.

Cutting costs while retaining service

This was accomplished as intense competition from low-cost airlines forced Alaska to change its business model and become low-cost itself — a shift that has turned off some longtime Alaska fans, annoyed by the fees slapped on for bags and legroom.

Mark Eliasen, a former vice president of finance at Alaska, recalls that “there was a time when Alaska aspired to be the Nordstrom of airlines, the place you love for the service and are willing to pay a little more.”

“Brad was the prime architect of turning the company away from that,” said Eliasen. “We had to explain to employees that it’s not a viable business strategy.”

This article originally appeared on Seattle Times

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