“The world needs a good Christmas this year,” enthused Steve Paul, who becomes Chief Elf Bernie each year at this time, as he shared his excitement at the approaching 25th anniversary of the Spokane Fantasy Flight to the North Pole that carries orphans and foster children aboard an Alaska Airlines737-900 from Spokane to visit Santa.
And the world would likely enthuse with him if they could be on hand the afternoon of December 11 as the 60 children, ages 4 to 10, and their elves board what has traditionally been Alaska Flight 1225, dubbed “Santa 1,” at Spokane International Airport for their flight to Santa’s home to visit with the Jolly Old Elf and Mrs. Clause. The special flight was suspended last Christmas season because of COVID.
I’ve come to describe the spirit that settles over all those involved as the Magic Dust of Christmas Caring. That spirit is evidenced by the Spokane residents who help prepare for months for the event, the businesses that donate all the products that make the event happen, the Alaska employees who participate as crew and elves, and the airline itself for making its years-long commitment of plane, crew and a large slice of the caring.
The kids and their elves, as many as 10 of whom have been involved for all 25 flights, missing only 2020’s canceled flight, will all be wearing the required masks that may hide their smiles but the excitement each of the children feels will likely be visible in their eyes. And Paul said the volunteers will only number 200, noting “we’re keeping number low for risk mitigation.”
Paul, who in his other life is a digital IT program manager at Engie Impact, a Spokane energy management company, has been president and CEO of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the 501c3 that oversees everything related to planning and carrying out this special event.
My first Harp on the Fantasy Flight was 2010 thanks to my friend, Blythe Thimsen, then editor of Spokane & Coeur d’ Alene Living, who was an elf that year and sent me her article and filled me in on details, including a picture of her in her costume that I’ve included again in this 12th Fantasy Flight Harp,
While the event was born 25 years ago, some of the happenings that came to occupy space in one or another of the Harps since then have endured in the holiday event.
Notable among those developments has been the role pilot Eric Hrivnek has come to play for a half dozen years or so. Once again, in addition to being the pilot at the controls for the 20-minute flight, he will be the person who advises that it’s time for the magic chant of the youngsters that allows the plane to cross the North Pole barrier.
As the kids pull down their shades and do the chant each will wave a magic wand they will be given as they board, then Hrivnek will deploy the engine thrusters when Santa and Rudolph appear on the radar screen to confirm that the “Santa 1” flight has entered North Pole airspace.
Then the jetliner will taxi to a hanger on the other side of the airport and, as the passengers deplane, they will be greeted by a group of elves, though Paul said the live reindeer that have milled around in years past won’t be there this year and meet Santa and Mrs. Clause.
When it comes time for each child’s personal visit with Santa, who will have received their lists ahead of time, a gift will be selected for each from their lists so Santa can reach into his sack and say “I got your list. Look here!”
An indication of the place this event holds in the hearts of Alaska employees is that one-year Hrivnek (pictured below with a friend) didn't get his bid in to be at the controls so he didn't get to go. He made sure thereafter that he was first in line.
United Airlines actually did the fantasy trip from 1999 to 2007 but it was a commitment of the local United team rather than the company itself with United Spokane team corralling an airliner overnighting in Spokane but because there was no provision for the “flight” to carry the kids aloft, the plane taxied around and stopped at a hanger.
It was while he was traveling for Itron, the Spokane-based global energy and water management company, that Paul saw a poster at the airport promoting United’s “flight” in 2000 and with that, he was hooked and thereafter took charge of overseeing all the planning and resolving the challenges.
He was asked to step into a leadership role in 2006 and his first crisis came as they prepared for the 2007 flight only to learn that United had no planes available in Spokane. So he recalled, “we had to revert to school buses on the field surrounded by emergency escorts with flashing lights. Actually, it worked because all the windows were fogged up and the flashing lights as we headed to the North Pole made it very magical.”
“After the 2007 problem I reached out to United about more of a commitment, including a plan for a plane and a flight,” Paul said. “They had no interest. The Fantasy Flight leadership approached Southwest. They had no interest either.”
“It was then that I suggested Alaska Airlines and a contact in my neighborhood helped me reach out to Alaska’s marketing department and the rest (including his question ‘why can’t we take off,’ to which Alaska basically replied ‘of course we can’) has been a 14-year partnership.”
Alaska Air Group CEO Ben Minicucci summed up what he described as "the strong culture of kindness and caring at Alaska Airlines," noting "that's something that differentiates us and it really shines through in moments like this."
Paul noted that many of the founding members from United’s Spokane operation have continued to be involved and remain involved today, including Mrs. Clause, Leslie Lathrop.
And as always, Alaska and Horizon employees, though mainly from the Spokane and Puget Sound areas, include individuals from across the system, this year from Boise, San Diego, Henderson, NV, and Bloomington, MN.
Local merchants provide the kids' things like pajamas, Lands End snow boots and gloves, T-shirts, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
There used to be other airlines that did Christmas flights of one extent or another for needy kids but 2020 would have halted any that were going on and a search in preparation for this column didn’t turn up any such holiday trips, no indication that Alaska isn’t now alone as providing this annual trip for children.
This will be a familiar story, with new details, for longtime subscribers to the Harp. But retelling and updating the story has been my holiday gift since that first column in 2010because it’s a story of human caring and compassion, and commitment by an array of local businesses and volunteers and a major airline, virtually without fanfare.
It’s a story that not only won’t get old but perhaps becomes more needed each year. Maybe particularly this year.