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Alaska Airlines' head of sustainability explains how company culture allows for good ideas to take off: 'Those little wins … can propel you to the big wins'

"One of our Green Team members identified that there are these other solutions out there…"

“One of our Green Team members identified that there are these other solutions out there..."

Photo Credit: Alaska Airlines

Innovation in a legacy industry can feel like flying into a headwind, but sometimes success depends on being scrappy — and enlisting your 23,000-plus employees to help.

In an exclusive interview with The Cool Down, Alaska Airlines Managing Director of Sustainability Ryan Spies told us, "I think we like to think of ourselves as punching above our weight. We are the fifth-largest airline in the US, but we have a seat at the table."

Part of their secret sauce for innovating, Spies told us, lies within their "Green Team" — a business resource group that empowers employees to suggest improvements in efficiency and the guest experience. 

The airline has some of the most aggressive airline sustainability goals — committing to 10% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030 — and the company is investing heavily in technologies like hydrogen-powered planes that may be well-suited to their shorter, regional routes.

Alaska has had a challenging 2024 after a door panel on one of their Boeing planes fell off mid-flight due to a factory error, but the airline fully inspected its entire fleet of that aircraft model since then and is moving forward with a proposed merger with Hawaiian Airlines. 

What sets Alaska apart for flyers, though, is a reputation for customer service, frequently topping Newsweek's rankings in the category. They led the U.S. airline industry in eliminating single-use plastic on board — replacing plastic water bottles with Boxed Water — and challenged flyers to get involved in sustainability with a creative promotion offering status upgrades for purchasing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) credits.

We spoke to Spies about their strategy and how they've leveraged their internal Green Team to shake things up. 

📣 Now boarding: Strategies 1, 2, and 3

Spies unpacked Alaska's 3-pronged sustainability strategy for us: 

• Making near-term efficiencies, including single-engine taxis 
• Transitioning to SAF
• Investing in the future of flight

When it comes to transitioning to sustainable fuels, "The problem today is scale," Spies told TCD. "Less than 1% of the fuel in the world is sustainable aviation fuel. We need all people, all of our customers, our corporate clients, and policy to help us get there, along with our ingenuity and partnerships along the way to build a new industry around sustainable aviation fuel."

✈️ Hydrogen-powered planes

"We're also looking at investing in the future of flight — so hydrogen-powered aircraft, electric-powered aircraft."

Alaska donated one of its planes to be the first hydrogen-powered passenger aircraft out there, through a partnership with ZeroAvia. While today's jets are primarily powered by a kerosene fuel blend, "When you burn hydrogen, it's a clean burn. There's no residual CO2 that's coming off that."

"We're hopeful that here in the next few years to see the launch of that 87-seater out in the air powered by hydrogen," Spies said. 

This makes sense for an airline that has the majority of its services focused on the Western U.S., as hydrogen fuel has a lower energy per unit volume and thus bigger fuel tanks would be needed to travel equivalent distances: "We're not quite to the point where we're sending people across the country, but we are flying them. We're hopeful that these hydrogen aircraft will be able to fly more regionally." 

💸 Incentivizing flyers to get involved in the future of aviation

To accelerate their sustainable aviation plans, Alaska recently ran a promotion offering flyers a status upgrade for purchasing SAF credits. Not only did this help support work on reducing carbon pollution, but it also allowed Alaska to learn whether customers would be willing to pay for SAF, to "send market signals as well."

The response? Spies told us it "blew us all away." While the airline expected to sell 100,000 gallons during the December promo, they ended up selling over half a million gallons. 

"Over 6,000 guests took part in this promo and we were just thrilled with the response," Spies said. "People were putting out not $5, $10, $20, but increments of hundreds of dollars to participate in this, which … made us so excited about the future." 

Spies told TCD participation was across the board. "We're really seeing a lot of uptake in that next generation traveler … but generally, we are seeing it across the board," he said. "We're seeing it with frequent travelers, with business travelers, and so that's really exciting — it's not just one cohort." 

Because it was such a success, the company told us they're bringing it back this spring.

🥤 Eliminating single-use plastic & food waste

Spies and Alaska are on a mission to eliminate single-use plastic items on their planes. In addition to replacing plastic bottles with Boxed Water, they have replaced plastic cups with paper cups and also encourage flyers to bring their own water on board. 

Guests are required to pre-order meals or food via an email or the app to reduce food waste. 

"So much food is wasted when you just have to stock up your whole fridge," Spies said. "Pre-select not only cuts waste down, but it makes our guests a lot happier." 

🌱 Activating the Green Team 

Alaska knows all its employees are central to its sustainability strategy. From flight attendants to pilots to dispatchers and back-office personnel, "it's the most robust and biggest group that I've seen at any company, and we're always hearing feedback," Spies told TCD. "How do we improve this experience? How do we talk to guests about this? Educating and bringing on our champions internally is a big piece of it for us."

For example, he highlighted a Green Team member who saw an opportunity to do better and reduce plastic wrapping around children's car seats. (The airline offers flyers a free plastic bag for car seats.) 

"One of our Green Team members identified that there are these other solutions out there — can we go look at how we can reduce the amount of plastic we're using and can we make a switch in our supply chain? We weren't able to eliminate the plastic bag, but we were able to reduce 15,000 pounds of plastic a year just by making this change that our Green Team member identified.

"... And when you get those little wins, they can propel you to the big wins. And I think that stuff is the things that you will tell your kids about that you will be so happy when you retire someday and our air is cleaner and that we're on the right path."

(Dive deeper: This Alaska Airlines employee sparked an innovative recycling tactic way up near the Arctic Circle.) 

🏆 Make it rewarding 

For Alaska, sustainability messaging starts with their West Coast vibe — and how much they value caring for their guests and the environment. 

"We really try to emphasize, 'Hey, this is easier,'" Spies said. "… Sometimes it's cleaner, sometimes it's a simpler process, and sometimes it actually is the cheaper way to go."

💚 Most fun part about your job? 

"It's every day. It really is," Spies said. "I really haven't been this happy in a long time."

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