by: Alexandra Nava-Baltimore
The bold goal of becoming the most accessible airline and having the nerve to say it aloud, springs from a collective mindset that it’s imperative to set a high bar.
To Ray Prentice, 34-year Alaska Airlines employee and Director of Customer Advocacy, setting the bar high is in the company’s DNA. “Part of growing and getting better means acknowledging when something goes wrong, taking corrective action, and relentlessly focusing on getting better. Change never happens overnight, but we’re persistent, dedicated, and hold ourselves accountable to our guests.”
Known for its caring, empathetic employees, Alaska has built its culture around service and attracts people who want to do more and do it better. “The more people you can get engaged about disability, diversity, equity, and inclusion, the faster you’ll build a community who can work together to make a difference. The fun part is when we reach critical mass, and accessibility becomes part of the organization’s culture. We have accessibility champions in every part of the business from revenue management to e-commerce, and they’re not shy about speaking up and doing the right thing.”
Take, for example, Alaska Airlines’ Fly for All accessibility app, which was created as a labor of love in 2019. Ray met Katie Hench from InfiniTeach, creator of Alaska’s app, at a 2018 Open Doors Airlines symposium in Minneapolis. In three short years, Fly for All has been downloaded more than 27,000 times.
While COVID has shut down airline-sponsored events like Wings for Autism, which gives families with children on the spectrum disorder a practice travel session before they fly, the app fills in the gap, bringing families, airline, and airport workers together to make travel easier for flyers with disabilities.
Initially designed for individuals with disabilities, Fly for All’s scope has widened to the mainstream. It also assists unaccompanied minors, families traveling with small children, and more. “This means broader inclusivity,” Ray says, adding, “When families tell us the app has helped alleviate their anxiety and opened air travel for them—that’s really rewarding.”
Social narratives in the app are especially useful during COVID since many people haven’t traveled in recent years. The app dispels the mystery of the experience, especially helpful for someone’s first flight. It unpacks each aspect of the travel process: arriving at the airport, checking in, and the stress-inducing act of going through security screenings. “It’s not the same as being at the airport and having the experience, but based on guest feedback, it’s close enough to make a difference.” Fly for All is free and available through the App Store or Google Play.
Employee training continues to be a priority at Alaska Airlines, to ensure staff seize opportunities to learn and take care of guests with disabilities. This includes the careful handling of mobility devices—which was recently pointed out by an articulate powerhouse of a nine-year-old girl, Rory, who felt her wheelchair could have been handled more respectfully. In an interview, she conveyed the importance of treating mobility devices like fragile scientific pieces of equipment, which provide independence. When Rory described her manual chair as her legs—that got people’s attention. The company turned that miss into an opportunity: incorporating the interview into a new training video for Alaska.
As a potential future employee, Rory led Alaska Airlines to tackle another opportunity: eliminate infrastructure barriers at its facilities. A playbook is in development to help ensure all facilities are accommodating, so all employees have a great work experience.
Although the travel industry is highly competitive, Ray says the airline industry’s competitive streak ends when tackling accessibility. “It’s an area where we’re openly willing to help each other.” In fact, he sees the travel industry increasingly embracing accessibility as part of its culture and brand. Ray adds, “The Fly for All app title captures our mission. Everybody, including individuals with disabilities, should experience excellent customer service and the resulting wonders of air travel. We’re committed to making that happen, with encouragement, and occasional tough love, from employees and guests!”
From what we can see, Alaska Airlines is flying high with its goal of being the most accessible airline.