The inaugural Alaska Airlines flight was piloted by captain Wally Powelson, who grew up in Olney and attended Central High School before graduating in 1970 from Cheltenham High School. He said he used his 28 years of seniority at the airline to make sure he got to fly the first flight to his old hometown.
Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, the nation's seventh-largest airline, will offer Philadelphia travelers one flight daily to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, providing competition to US Airways, which flies four nonstop roundtrips daily to Seattle. Round-trip fares currently are $490 with advance purchase.
"I think we will give them a run for their money," said Jeff Butler, Alaska's vice president for customer service. Alaska will staff its local operations with employees of Delta Air Lines, as it does in most of its eastern locations.
With its Philadelphia inaugural, Alaska Airlines continues an aggressive expansion in the East and Midwest, after decades of focusing on the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and California. Philadelphia becomes the 62d city in the Alaska network and the 16th east of the Rockies.
"The east coast has done very well for us, so I suspect as we continue to receive airplanes, we will continue to grow the East Coast region," Butler said.
Butler declined to be drawn into a debate between the airport and its tenant airlines about the need for expanding the airport and adding a fifth runway. Airport officials are moving forward with a $6 billion expansion plan, while the airlines have argued that an expansion won't resolve air-traffic delays and will be too expensive.
"We've got a good relationship with the airport folks here locally … we'll work through those issues," Butler said. "It's not like we haven't worked through them with San Diego, Las Vegas, Sacramento. I mean, it's common practice."
The airline has built a reputation for customer amenities, including $6 hot meals for coach-class travelers, and it was ranked highest in airline customer satisfaction among traditional carriers in North America by J.D. Power and Associates each of the past four years. In 2010 and 2011, the airline had the best on-time performance among major U.S. carriers, with 87.8 percent of flights arriving within 15 minutes of schedule.
"That's the hallmark of Alaska Airlines — taking care of customers," Butler said. "And I think that gets lost in big carriers with big hubs."
US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said, "We look forward to competing with our friends from the Pacific Northwest just as we do with the many other carriers that already serve Philadelphia."
The airport and Alaska Airlines celebrated the first flight with a jazz band, a buffet, and a sheet cake in a Terminal D gate decked out with blue and white balloons. The first flight rolled up to the gate at 4:57 p.m., and first officer Carrie Jones opened a cockpit window to wave to onlookers.
After a ribbon-cutting by Nutter, Butler and other officials, the plane was refueled and on its way back to Seattle, with its first paying customers from Philadelphia.
The airline has a new chief executive, Bradley Tilden, the 51-year-old company president who added the chief-executie title last month to replace William Ayer, who stepped down as CEO after 10 years but continues to serve as chairman of the board.
Last year, Alaska Air Group, the parent of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, replaced AMR Corp., the parent of bankrupt American Airlines, in the Dow Jones Transportation Average.
Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or email@example.com.