Sixty disadvantaged kids and their personal elves board Alaska Airlines' flight 1225, dubbed "Santa One," Dec. 10 at Spokane International Airport for a Fantasy Flight to "the North Pole" on the 737 900 and a visit with Santa. It's an event that could be described as the place where the real magic dust of Christmas has been scattered, because this special trip is unique in the world.
The children, between the ages of 4 and 10, are selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, ID, areas for this once-in-a-lifetime fantasy adventure to Santa's home.
A number of other airlines, including United and Continental, have been doing the North Pole "flights" in various cities, some for nearly 20 years. But Alaska is the only airline to actually take the kids aloft for their magical trip, in which they pull the window shades down as the flight nears its conclusion, say the magic words that allow them to land at the North Pole, and land at other side of Spokane International Airport.
It's there that they're greeted by Santa and Mrs. Clause and an additional host of elves.
"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," explains "Bernie" the Head Elf, better known as
Steve Paul, president and CEO of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the nonprofit group that runs the event.
"We take those lists and buy each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what he or she wants, Santa can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them," adds Paul "The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."
To ensure that the selection is actually reaching the most deserving children, Paul's non-profit works only with the area's social agencies, which use their selection and screening processes to pull the children who desperately need to create positive Christmas holiday memories.
The children are picked up at the Spokane YWCA in the early afternoon and driven to the airport, where each child is given a "passport" to the North Pole and a personal "elf" catering to every need, including a backpack filled with school supplies. Then they board the plane, designated Flight 1225.
The flight has priority status with the FAA once it's loaded and ready to fly and "Santa One" comes up on the screen. Then the flight's own personal air traffic controller takes over, Paul said. "It becomes just like Air Force One in that respect."
Paul is an out-of-work tech exec who has made the project his special commitment. As a result of his efforts, what he describes as "the 150 percent support of the community" and the Alaska involvement, the adventure for the Spokane children is brought closer to reality than in any other place.
He spends a number of months in preparation for the big day, lining up donations and contributions that this year amount to $150,000 of cash and in-kind, helping get the kids selected and arranging for the elves and gifts for the kids.
Brad Tilton, Alaska Airlines president who will be on hand with his wife for the event, says "the Fantasy Flight is an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. It's a
true delight for the children, who don't get to enjoy Christmas like most of us do and who, in many cases, have never had the chance to fly. And our employees,
who eagerly volunteer every year, get far more back than the time they put in."
Alaska and Horizon will have more than four dozen employees participating, from various locations on the airlines' systems. Some will be elves. Others will forego days off to work shifts for local Horizon employees so they can be elves.
This has been an amazingly off-the-radar-screen event, both during the eight years that United put the kids on a plane that taxied around the airport, and in the four years since Alaska Airlines came to the rescue of the event when United couldn't free up a plane with Alaska proceeding to turn it into a real airborne flight.
But that low visibility is changing as the list of kids registered and waiting has grown to almost 250 and media organizations have started to become aware of this special Christmas Season story. And there are some in the Alaska Airlines organization who understand the one-of-a-kind goodwill that this event represents, particularly because neither the company nor the employees has done this for the sake of visibility.
Horizon's Spokane customer service manager David Burris admits the visibility has been low key over the years, partly because broader visibility would only bring pressure to make the event bigger.
Is there an opportunity for other cities to follow suit with a special North Pole event? Alaska officials suggest it would be difficult for the airline to take another plane and crew out of regular service during the heavy-travel holiday time. And Paul acknowledges that while he could provide the know-how to another community, he wouldn't have time to actually do another event over the Christmas season.
"A lot of people have said we should take this on the road," Paul notes. "I could do that if I could get people to define their non-profit or if our organization were to expand. But this is not some casual party. A lot of planning and time is involved."
Paul adds that he is having a movie done "that will in the future characterize the experience. We have a couple of elves who were parents of foster children involved in earlier flights who said the kids were so transformed by the experience that they had to get involved."
How real is this trip to the kids? As one elf put it: "If you're a little kid on your first plane ride and your ticket says North Pole, and the shades are drawn, and everyone, including the flight attendants and all the elves are saying the magic words, then who's to doubt that you have landed at the real North Pole? And then you see Santa."