Alaska Airlines CEO speaks about adapting to change

By Isaac Bonnell

Change is constant and sooner or later your company will have to figure out how to deal with it. That’s the message that William Ayer, CEO of Alaska Airlines, gave to a sold-out crowd at the 9th Annual Bellingham Business Forum on March 18.

“Most of my tenure at Alaska has been working with change,” he told the crowd of about 300 people during his keynote speech.

Ayer began his career with Alaska Airlines in 1995 and became CEO in 2002, when the whole industry was in turmoil after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While other airlines were sliding into bankruptcy, Ayer said the crew at Alaska was determined to figure out a new way of reaching profitability.

“In bankruptcy, the lawyers and judges make all the tough calls and the management stands off to the side. So we told ourselves that we were going to figure this out ourselves,” Ayer said

Figuring out how to adapt to a “rapidly changing business environment” was a messy and sometimes frustrating task, Ayer said. But in the end, the results have turned out better than the company could have hoped: Alaska Airlines has remained profitable for the past six years and is the ninth largest carrier in the country.

Ayer offered several bits of advice for companies that are in the process of change: get the right people on board with the change, focus on one or two big ideas to keep the process simple, and instill a sense of urgency so that the change will happen.

“Focus on what you can control in the long-term,” he said. “Don’t whine about the rotten hand you’ve been dealt.”

The Bellingham Business Forum is hosted by the Western Washington University Foundation.

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