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2-2 Small Group Jigsaw Learning Discussion: Analysis and Diagnosis of Alaska Airlines: Navigating ChangeIn your final project, you will be developing a change plan for the “Alaska Airlines: Navigating Change” case study. In order to begin developing this change plan, you will need to analyze the case study and diagnose the problem.In this activity, your instructor will assign you to a group with five of your peers, and each group will be assigned its own discussion topic. Each member of the group will be given one of the six parts for the Analysis and Diagnosis section of the final project case study (problem, impact, organizational needs, variables, underlying causes, and gaps). You are to become an expert on your piece of the puzzle and should post your answer (along with the prompt your instructor gives you) so the rest of the class can benefit from your piece of the analysis.You should then read all of your assigned group members’ initial posts in order to gain a better understanding of the case study and to compare it with your own understanding.You will be ultimately responsible for understanding all the different parts of the analysis and diagnosis for the final project (Section I, A–F), but this collaboration from your peers will help you get started.Respond to at least two of your peers with any questions you have about their analysis and diagnosis, and compare their answer to your own understanding of the case.


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Bruce J. Avolio, Chelley Patterson and Bradford Baker wrote this case solely to provide material for class discussion. The authors do
not intend to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a managerial situation. The authors may have disguised certain names
and other identifying information to protect confidentiality.
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University, London, Ontario, Canada, N6G 0N1; (t) 519.661.3208; (e) [email protected];
Copyright © 2015, Richard Ivey School of Business Foundation
Version: 2017-07-20
In the autumn of 2007, Alaska Airlines executives adjourned at the end of a long and stressful day in the
midst of a multi-day strategic planning session. Most headed outside to relax, unwind and enjoy a bonfire
on the shore of Semiahmoo Spit, outside the meeting venue in Blaine, a seaport town in northwest
Washington state.
Meanwhile, several members of the senior executive committee and a few others met to discuss how to
adjust plans for the day ahead. This group included Bill Ayer, president and chief executive officer (CEO);
Brad Tilden, executive vice-president (EVP) of finance and chief financial officer; Glenn Johnson, EVP of
airport service and maintenance & engineering; the company’s chief counsel and executives from
Marketing and Planning, Strategic Planning and Employee Services. They were concerned that the airline
was steadily draining its reserves of customer loyalty and goodwill, which until recently had seemed
abundant — even boundless.
Alaska Airlines had recovered from an all-time operational low, where only 60 per cent of flights were on
time and seven bags per 1,000 passengers were reported as having been mishandled (defined by the
Department of Transportation as checked baggage that was lost, pilfered, damaged or delayed). The airline
was now back to the lower end of its pre-crisis status quo of 70 to 75 per cent on-time flights and four
mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.1 Both these important metrics continued to vary from one day to the
next. Although the situation on the ramp was stable for the time being, it was still fragile, with the ground
crew handling baggage and also performing ground service in between flights. After focusing many
resources on operations to improve the airline’s operational results, the executives wondered what might
happen if performance were to slip again. Would the airline slip farther and faster than before? What would
it take to again recover to the current status quo? Would customers continue to be forgiving? Would this
mediocre level of improvement be sufficient?
Below is the agenda created that night for the next day’s discussions, when the full group would again
Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement, U.S. Department of Transportation, Air Travel Consumer Report, 2012,, accessed July 7, 2013.
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Page 2
9:00–11:00 a.m. 2008 Plan Discussion
Setup: No room for failure; tiger by the tail; you have 12 months to fix the operation sustainably and no
severance. What would the Carlyle group do if it purchased Alaska Airlines?

If you were the Carlyle Group, what proposals would you accept and why?
What else would you do?
How much benefit do you expect and how soon?
The following morning, the top executive team posed a tough question to the group, about 25 in all. One
executive recalled the framing of the activity the next day as follows:
What would a Carlyle2 or a Warren Buffet do? Imagine a big conglomerate has just come in and
bought the airline. We’re a $3 billion 3 company making little money; our reputation with our
customers has taken a beating; we’ve had major problems with Seattle, our main hub; and we’ve had
problems with two large groups of employees. What would Carlyle do because [it is] emotionally
unattached to this?
The assembled executives divided into groups to discuss different elements of the problem. One executive
recalled the experience and the outcome of that day as “one of the ugliest sessions I’ve ever been a part of.
Yet, we came out of there joined at the hip saying that the biggest challenge we faced was our operation
and it had to be fixed, and it had to be fixed now.”
Indeed, a three-pronged recommendation emerged:
1. We need to fix the Seattle hub first before trying to fix the whole system.
2. We need a higher-level person to devote 100 per cent of time to fixing the Seattle hub.
3. This person needs to be able to cross boundaries and break through silos.
A few weeks later, the executive leadership did two things. First, it appointed the staff vice-president (VP)
of operations to the new role of VP of Seattle Operations. Previously, the Seattle station had been run by
the individual managers of each functional operational unit (e.g., ticket counter, maintenance, inflight, flight
operations), each working within his or her silo. As the executive leadership explained to the new VP of
Seattle Operations, “Carlyle would come in and assign someone to fix Seattle and [it would] say either you
fix it or you’re gone.” That was the message. Second, the executive leadership told everyone at the SeattleTacoma International or Sea-Tac Airport that, in addition to reporting to his or her functional manager, each
now had a dotted-line reporting relationship to the new VP of Seattle Operations and were expected to fully
support him.
The new VP brought all the leaders of Seattle together and instituted a data-driven process, which involved
identifying standard processes: a detailed timeline for the time between aircraft arrival and departure, using
scorecards to measure how well Alaska was following its intended processes. Over time, standard work
processes were defined, and daily scorecards provided visibility about performance for each step in the
aircraft turn. Process improvement efforts were applied to remove wasted steps.
Carlyle Group was a global asset management firm that began investing in corporate private equity in 1990 through
investments in leveraged buyout transactions. These transactions involved finding and investing in underperforming, lossmaking businesses that had potential for growth, then selling them after exercising management and financial restructuring to
turnaround these “down-and-out” businesses. One of Carlyle’s turnaround strategies was to place its own choice of CEO at
the helm of a troubled acquisition and to create greater ownership among management.
All currency amounts are shown in U.S. dollars unless otherwise noted.
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This rigour led to a dramatic and sustained turnaround in Department of Transportation rankings for ontime departures, J.D. Power’s standings,4 mishandled bag rates (MBR) and operating margins from 2005
to 2010 with 2008 being a pivotal year (see Exhibit 1). Indeed, Alaska Airlines achieved the number-one
ranking in J.D. Power for customer satisfaction in year one (2008) following the initiation of the change
effort and for the next five years. In year two of the change effort, under a company-wide oversight team
led by the new VP of Seattle Operations, the Seattle work processes were standardized throughout the
system. Financial and operational performance received an additional boost when the company transitioned
its MD-80 aircraft out of the fleet. Modelled after Southwest Airlines’ aircraft strategy, an all-Boeing 737
fleet promised greater fuel efficiency and fleet reliability, and required only Boeing parts in inventory and
simplified training for maintenance staff and crew.
To understand the dramatic changes and root causes that were addressed between autumn 2007 and midyear 2010, it is necessary to go back before 2006, when passengers were angered by mishandled bags and
wait times at the carousel, sometimes to the extent that airport police had to be called to the baggage claim
area to intervene. Indeed, insight into contributing causes could be traced back prior to 2005, when the
pilots, demoralized as a result of pay cuts, resisted efforts to improve operational performance, were
comparatively slow to taxi and often reported maintenance problems at the last minute, resulting in what
some executives saw as an unnecessary work slowdown. Other contributing causes included rocky contract
negotiations with other labour groups, which affected the engagement of other employee groups, and ramp
management’s hands-off approach to ramp operations oversight, which resulted in a lack of operational
understanding. One executive noted that root causes stemmed back to 1999, when the airline was
“succeeding despite themselves due to fortuitous fuel costs and a good economy.” The following is an
overview of the history, culture and events leading up to the 2007 decision to create the role of VP of Seattle
Operations; also included is a more detailed account of what occurred between 2007 and 2010 to fix the
airline’s largest hub, including a look at the root causes and subsequent solutions necessary for analyzing
the changes and leadership driving this rapid turnaround.
Alaska Air Group traced its roots to McGee Airlines, founded in Alaska in 1932 by bush pilot Mac McGee.
The airline merged with Star Air Service in 1934, making it the largest airline in Alaska with 22 planes;
however, many of these planes were small bush planes and would eventually be decommissioned as the
airline grew. At the 10-year mark in 1942, the company was purchased and the name changed to Alaska
Star Airlines, with a final name change in 1944. By 1972, the company was struggling but was salvaged by
new leadership, which focused on improving operations and taking advantage of the rich opportunities that
came with the construction of the trans-Alaska Pipeline. The following year, 1973, marked the first of 19
consecutive years of profitability, aided in part by industry deregulation in 1979, which enabled the 10plane airline to expand throughout the West Coast, beyond its previous service to 10 Alaskan cities and to
Seattle, its single destination in the “lower 48 states.” By the end of the 1980s, Alaska Airlines (Alaska)
had tripled in size, in part as a result of having joined forces with Horizon Air and Jet America. Its fleet had
increased five-fold and the route map now included flights to Mexico and Russia.
As of mid-2010, the airline employed roughly 8,650 with an additional 3,000 or so employed in Horizon
Air. Approximately 160 to 170 of the airline’s employees were at the director level and above (including
J.D. Power is an American-based global market research firm founded in 1968 and purchased in 2005 by McGraw Hill
Financial for inclusion in its Information and Media Group. The firm conducts consumer opinion and perception research about
customer satisfaction with product and service quality in a variety of industries including travel. J.D.Power produces ratings
and awards based on its research that aid consumers in making informed purchase decisions. Awards are sought after by
corporations for their endorsement value.
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Page 4
directors, managing directors and VPs). The two airlines, at this point, shared many backroom services such
as accounting and planning. Exhibit 2 provides some basic operating data for the period 2002 to 2010.
Throughout the 1990s, Alaska was typically in the middle of the pack in terms of most airline performance
indices, such as on-time departures. Falling in the middle range of performance without significant
motivation for change appeared to be based on the mentality that, “it’s OK to be late, so long as we’re nice.”
This viewpoint could partially be attributed to the leadership of Ray Vecci, the CEO from 1990 to 1995,
who openly fought the adoption of mandatory Departure on Time (DOT) reporting requirements, saying
that Alaska was different because of its operating environment. Vecci’s attitude led to a general tendency
to “blame the system” rather than confront the fact that Alaska was rarely on time. Alaska’s employees
prided themselves on having the best customer service in the industry, which they defined as being nice —
not necessarily as being efficient. Indeed, Alaska enjoyed a great deal of customer loyalty and a significant
reserve of goodwill from its customers.
In 1945, the pilots were the first of Alaska’s employee groups to form a union, followed in 1959 and 1961,
by the organization of mechanics and flight attendants, respectively. In 1972, customer service, baggage
handlers and other operational employees followed suit.
As for many of the major carriers and for smaller, older airlines, such as Alaska, labour negotiations
(sometimes marked by strong contentions, slowdowns, strikes and flight cancellations) were a routine and
costly aspect of the airline business. Even when settlements were reached through negotiation or binding
arbitration, resentments could last for years, affecting both morale and productivity. An airline could be in
almost constant negotiations as employment contracts lasted from three to five years (depending on the
union), and as many as six collective bargaining agreements could be in play.
For Alaska, despite a strong employee-customer bond, the relationship between labour and management
fell short of being ideal for many years. An International Association of Machinists (IAM) strike in 1985
lasted for three months, during which time replacement workers were hired.5 In 1993, a flight attendants’
intermittent strike, the suspension of 17 flight attendants and a subsequent federally ordered reinstatement
suggested the tip of a larger iceberg of labour-management problems looming ahead. The flight attendants’
strike was a unique form of “intermittent strike” called CHAOS (and still used today by Association of
Flight Attendants), which Alaska management viewed as illegal job action. In 1998, contentious contract
negotiations between the company and members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association began
and were not settled until the middle of 1999. As in the case of the pilots’ union agreement of the prior year,
this new agreement called for third-party binding arbitration in the event that future agreements could not
be reached in 120 days. In the fall of 1999, the IAM, representing clerical workers and customer service
agents, reached an agreement after more than two years of protracted negotiation.
By the end of 1999, contract settlements had been reached with four out of six unions, leading to a new
wave of contract negotiations beginning about 2003. Under normal circumstances, these negotiations could
“Mechanics Pact Ends 3-Month Strike against Alaska Airlines,” Los Angeles Times,, accessed July 7, 2013.
This document is authorized for use only by MANUEL RIVERA in OL-663 Leading Change 19TW3 taught by SNHU INSTRUCTOR, Southern New Hampshire University from Jan 2019 to May
For the exclusive use of M. RIVERA, 2019.
Page 5
be daunting enough; however, no one could predict what would unfold in the industry or for Alaska over
the next 24 months.
At the turn of the new millennium, two successive airline-related tragedies affected Alaska in very different
ways. On January 31, 2000, an Alaska Airlines MD-80 jet carrying 88 passengers and crew from Puerto
Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco crashed into rough seas 64 km (40 miles) northwest of Los Angeles,
shortly after reporting mechanical problems. Among the passengers of Flight 261 were 12 working and offduty employees and 32 family members and friends of Alaska employees. Because half the victims had a
connection with the airline, the event would forever and uniquely alter Alaska’s collective self-concept.
The accident truly shook the morale of everyone working for Alaska.
And then came 9/11. Ensuing changes in security and boarding procedures in the third quarter of 2001, and
into 2002, interrupted airline operations industry-wide. Demand for travel plummeted. Exhibit 3 shows the
epidemic of airline bankruptcies from 2002 to 2008. Though Alaska was not immune to the nationwide
grief and industry turmoil in the wake of 9/11, the impact on Alaska may have been tempered because of
the prior tragedy of Flight 261. The following is one executive’s reflection on the two events:
From an employee perspective, no matter where you were in the organization, [the accident was] a
failure. The press wasn’t awfully kind, so from an employee basis there was probably a little bit of
shame associated with it. I think it had a greater impact than 9/11. 9/11 was shocking, but it was
that way for everyone. Even if you didn’t work for an airline, if you worked in an office building,
9/11 was shocking. [The Flight 261 accident] was more personal.
Perhaps a testament to Alaska’s resilience in the face of adversity, when almost all other airlines across the
United States began immediate furloughs, Alaska’s leaders intentionally chose not to lay off employees.
This strategic move by management restored much of the faith employees had in the company, as it
appeared that the leadership was betting on its employees to keep the airline aloft. Alaska was able to bank
away from the disaster in 2001 because of two actions: the airline’s cutting of the flight schedule by 13 per
cent as a cost-cutting measure and the injection of $79.9 million in compensation from the federal
government as part of an industry-wide program to cover losses related to September 11th. Alaska’s annual
passenger traffic dropped 5.6 per cent in 2001 compared with the industry-wide decline in domestic
passenger travel of 19 per cent. The airline attributed this difference to its dominant market position; strong
customer loyalty and less falloff in demand for air travel by people living on the West Coast and in the state
of Alaska (see Exhibit 4).
Partly the result of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) supply management
policies, oil prices had been on the rise since 1999 (see Exhibit 5). Crude oil prices affected the airline
industry directly through higher fuel costs, which could account for 15 to 35 per cent of the cost of operating
an airline, and indirectly through the resulting global economic downturn of 2000/01. Alaska Airlines’
annual fuel and oil expenditures peaked in 2008, as did its fuel expense as a percentage of operating revenue
for the years 2002 to 2010. With the added economic impact of the dot-com debacle and post-9/11 travel
slowdown …
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