“As we kick off our 85th anniversary year, the inauguration of Cuba service marks the latest in some fascinating twists and turns to our route network,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska’s senior vice president for external relations.
Indeed the Cuba service launch brought back particular memories of Alaska’s far-out decision a quarter century ago to begin regular service to the Russian Far East, seizing what was then a thawing of relations between the two countries and the emergence of the Seattle area as a key player in that relationship that was beginning to verge on friendship.
Back in 1991, Seattle had already hosted the Goodwill Games competition between the U.S. and Russia, and business relations were being pursued. So Alaska launched summer service that year to Magadan, a sister city to Anchorage, and Khabarovsk, described as a European-style interior city that was the commercial and industrial hub for Russia’s Far East.
Part of the U.S.-Russia relations that emerged prompted creation of the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation FRAEC), whose then-president Carol Vipperman recalled in an email exchange this week “the Alaska flights to the Russian Far East were very meaningful to both sides.”
The challenges of some of Alaska’s early flights, eventually extending to five cities in the rugged Far East of Russia, could provide comedy-script material, but also confirmed the pioneering spirit of Alaska’s people.
The inaugural flight to Magadan, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, turned up the fact the airport had no de-icing service. It was reported the pilot rounded up every bottle of vodka available and sprayed it on the wings with a garden hose.
And when Alaska launched service to Petropavlovsk, the largest city on the Kamchatka Peninsula, as the inaugural flight loaded with dignitaries was about to land, ground authorities told the pilot he did not have landing rights so the Alaska jet was forced to turn around and return to Anchorage.
Alaska was forced to end the service, on which the airline insisted it made money over the nearly a decade of doing business, when the Russian economy collapsed in 1998.
Vipperman recalls being on the next-to-last flight, with long-time Secretary of State Ralph Munro and some Alaska officials.
“We had come from a bilateral meeting, and at the Kamchatka airport we were taken off the plane to meet with the governor of Kamchatka and other officials so that we could talk about the impact the closure would have on their region,” she recalled in our email exchange. “While we sipped vodka, the plane sat on the tarmac waiting for us to come back.”
“I was personally sad to see the service to the Russian Far East end,” she added.
Alaska’s innovative outreach to the Russian Far East actually went back almost two decades earlier, in the early ‘70s, when the still young carrier began charter service to the Soviet Union’s Siberia as a result of what have been described as “secret negotiations” between the airline and Soviet Authorities.
When the U.S. Department of State learned of the deal, it decided not to block the plan, indicating it didn’t want to create a negative response from the Soviet Union. It might also be assumed the agency wanted to avoid a negative response from Washington State’s two U.S. senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, then among the Senate’s most powerful members.
I emailed Sprague for some thoughts on the service that began in the ‘90s.
“The service to the Russian Far East was really something,” said Sprague, who was then with an Anchorage-based regional airlines. “It still amazes me to look at the map and think how far away from home base we were flying our old MD-80s for that service.”
Sprague noted Alaska’s long history of connecting communities, with the Russian Far East and now Cuba as key pieces, but also including launch of service to resort cities in Mexico, Hawaii, then points to the East Coast and Midwest.
The latest, of course, being the merger with Virgin America, which will create Alaska linkage of all the major cities on the West Coast.
“Our various moves have been good for the company, but we also like to think they have been good for the communities we serve,” Sprague said.
An example of serving communities is the fact that, despite filling it planes with passengers destined for popular vacation and business destinations, the airline continues to serve a special role in the infrastructure of the state where it was born as an airline connecting remote locations.
As Sprague noted: “We are proud that we still serve 19 points within the state of Alaska, only three of which are connected to the road system.”