Foster School celebrates ascending partnership with Alaska Airlines

Door prizes delivered by paper airplane on Alaska Airlines Day at the Foster School.

Squadrons of purple and gold paper airplanes rained down from the rafters of PACCAR Hall’s soaring Garvey Family Atrium and into the outstretched hands of a student mosh-pit on the ground. Each origami aircraft delivered a prize. A few bore a grand prize: a ticket to anywhere that Alaska Airlines flies—which includes Hawaii, holla!

It was the apogee of a rousing kickoff to Alaska Airlines Day at the Foster School of Business, played in with considerable pep by the UW Marching Band, cheer squad and everyone’s favorite actual Husky: Dubs.

The Husky Marching Band, cheer squad and Dubs joined in the celebration.

Associate Dean Steve Sefcik introduced the guest of honor: Alaska Airlines, which has grown into the nation’s 5th largest air carrier on the wings of unsurpassed customer service, industry leading technological innovations and corporate strategy trained on the farthest horizon. Based in Seattle, Alaska offers 1,200 daily flights to 118 destinations around North America, delivering 40 million loyal travelers—they prefer the term “guests”—a year.

Alaska also happens to be a Chair Level Corporate Partner at the Foster School. Its elite annual investment includes flight credits for faculty and student travel, scholarship support and underwriting of the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge. Its executives teach in Foster classrooms, serve as student mentors and judge competitions.

Mutual beneficiaries

Alaska’s Chairman and CEO Brad Tilden (MBA 1997) spoke of the partnership as a round trip of mutual benefit. In a panel with Executive MBA students, he professed that the school “transformed the way I looked at our company and our business.”

Tilden was the first in a long line of emerging leaders at Alaska to be educated in the Foster EMBA Program, creating a transcendent cumulative effect.

“The program is fantastic,” Tilden said. “And when you have two people a year over 20 years emerge with the same educational background, you develop a common way of thinking. During my time at Alaska, we’ve grown from 2,000 to 20,000 employees and from $1 billion in annual revenue to $8 billion. The UW has played a big role in that.”

Alaska CEO Brad Tilden and a panel of senior executives meet with EMBA students.

As if to offer proof of this contention, no fewer than four fellow Foster EMBA grads joined Tilden on the eight-person panel of senior executives, plus CFO Brandon Pedersen (BA 1988), an alumnus of Foster’s Undergraduate Program.

Extraordinary Access

The discussion, guided by student questions, ranged from adjusting to new GAAP standards to working with unions to coping with a pilot shortage to fighting temptation to expand internationally (for now) to integrating cultures after acquisition (of Virgin America). “We’re teaching them about operational discipline, and they’re teaching us how to be cool,” said Wayne Newton.

To explain Alaska Airlines’ incredible rise from regional carrier to the Fortune 500, Tilden diagrammed the company’s remarkably concise mission statement: “Creating an airline people love.”

“Two things about this,” he offered. “First, love is not a word that very many people use with very many airlines. And second is this notion of creating; this sense of motion and never resting is important for our business.”

Foster student leaders met with CFO Brandon Pedersen and other Alaska executives in the Pigott Board Room.

Following their meeting with EMBAs, the same sprawling team of Alaska leadership convened for a Q&A with student leaders from Foster’s Undergraduate and MBA Programs in the Pigott Boardroom. They also met with Foster’s career services team on better ways to engage students, and hosted a session on IT opportunities at Alaska.

It was a full day out of the office for Tilden and the Alaska executives. But, characteristic of its commitment to partnership with the Foster School, Alaska makes a big impression.

“We could not be more honored to be a part of your success,” Tilden told the crowd of students in PACCAR Hall. “This is a fantastic school. Congratulations on your 100 years. We are really honored to be a part of the future of the University of Washington, which really means being a part of the future of this great city and this great state.”