Ben Minicucci sees exciting growth on the horizon for Alaska Airlines as he takes the controls as CEO, replacing Brad Tilden, who retired last month after a 30-year career. Looking forward in his new role, Minicucci says Alaska is poised to emerge stronger out of the pandemic. He also reflects on his long partnership with Tilden and shares what the future looks like for people who fly and work for the fifth largest airline in the United States.
While CEO, Tilden led Alaska to become the industry leader in customer satisfaction, and will continue as chair of Alaska’s Board of Directors.
“At Alaska, I know I’ve got everyone counting on me to make sure we guide this airline through whatever is ahead. I have the responsibility, along with 23,000 people, to build on the fantastic legacy of this company.” – Ben Minicucci, Alaska Airlines CEO and President
1. What is unique about Alaska that you will protect and grow as CEO?
Minicucci: Our company has always had strong values around safety and around people. When we merged with Virgin America, we rewrote our values to really reflect who we are: “Own safety. Be kind-hearted. Do the right thing. Deliver performance. Be remarkable.” and our purpose: “Creating an airline people love.” It was a fun exercise to lead but it was also challenging to get a bunch of people aligned on what was at the root of our success. We aligned on these five values, which encompass everything to me that characterizes our success.
2. How has working with Brad Tilden for 17 years influenced you as a leader?
Minicucci: Working with Brad, with his love for the airline and what makes the airline special – the importance of our people and our culture and values – Brad really imprinted that on me. Also, how to survive the ups and downs of the cyclical industry we’re in, and that low costs and low fares are how to get growth. Over the years, as we ran the business as tightly as we could, we never forgot about the other side of the business — creating a culture with our people and delivering great customer service.
3. Your parents were immigrants, moving to Canada in the 1950s. How did your family’s experience shape you?
Minicucci: My parents left after the war in Italy because there was no work, and my father never went to school because, at the time, it was so poor in Italy. So, the work he did was work you do with your hands and your back. My parents worked hard to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and they believed the way you progress in life was to go to school and get an education and work hard. And they worked to afford a house, and they had gardens where they planted all sorts of fruits and vegetables. They would make sausages and salami and prosciutto, and they made wine every fall. To me, that’s what it was like when you grew up. You just took care of yourself.
When I was 17, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I decided to enter the military and attend the Royal Military College — like the West Point for Canada. I got my engineering degree, and I was fortunate. I was posted to a Transport Squadron and went all over the world. I was responsible for a C-130 and B707 maintenance crew and learned so much about leadership and a lot about aircraft maintenance, and what it meant to be responsible for men and women and be deployed. And it was just an amazing formation early in my career that ended up helping me throughout my professional life.
4. You’ve said diversity, equity and inclusion has been a journey for you. How will you make DEI a priority at Alaska?
Minicucci: So much has happened in our country over the last 12 months with the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and too many others before. We conducted a lot of listening sessions with employees. And when you talk with our people, you realize the depth of challenges with respect to racial equity. We are far from being where we need to be as a company that’s really diverse and inclusive, particularly a leadership team that’s representative of our front line. Those sessions opened my eyes. When you look at what we’ve done in the last 10 years, we’ve made progress — but not enough progress. So, we’ve got work to do.
I want our company to be a place where people feel like they belong, no matter who you are, where you’re from, your sexual orientation, gender, race, disability, background or language. We want to create a company where people know they belong and they say, “You know what? I feel good here and comfortable to be who I am and can be my best. And my company invests in people.”
I truly believe that one of the best paths to racial equity is through education. We have a wonderful partnership with UNCF and other great organizations, and have worked with local school districts to support youth and education. We want to continue supporting institutions with underrepresented students and communities where we can invest to create opportunities and help make those communities stronger.
5. Rumor has it, you’re trained in mindfulness or practice meditation. How does that play a role in your life and as a leader?
Minicucci: I’ve been really diligent about it, especially in the last six months. I actually took a course in transcendental meditation, which is an easy type of meditation. And I do it twice a day for 20 minutes. What I love about it is it calms me down. These jobs can get really stressful, and it helps me find balance. The second thing that I love is it gives me clarity of thought. So, as you’re bouncing from one topic to another, one meeting to another, it helps give me clarity so I can be the best for those I work with and focus on what’s important. I am actually addicted to it now. When I don’t do it, I find that maybe I’m not at my best. So, it’s really helped me.
6. Many people haven’t flown in over a year. What has Alaska done to ensure the safety of its guests and employees?
Minicucci: Since the pandemic started, our priority has been our guests’ and employees’ safety. We doubled down on that and we introduced Next-Level Care with 100 safety action items. But what I got excited about is how we communicated this to our guests. Safety policies always seem a little rigid — you know, you have to wear your mask, you’ve got to keep your distance from people, and so forth. So, we implemented all these things, yet we wanted to do it our way, the Alaska way. And then, our team came up with the “Safety Dance” idea, and we got our employees involved, which was key. We wanted to communicate that these are the safety expectations when you fly with us and communicate that in a clever, witty, funny way.
7. How is Alaska’s alliance with oneworld a game-changer for its guests?
Minicucci: I can’t tell you how excited I am about oneworld. One of my aspirations is to get Alaska on the national map – to be viewed not simply as a regional airline. What oneworld does is open the world to our airline and customers. I’ll use Seattle as an example: We have a massive domestic network in Seattle. And when you add our oneworld partners, we’ll add at least seven international destinations out of Seattle. For loyal customers of Alaska, they can accrue miles on Alaska and redeem them on British Airways, Qantas, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, among others. The ability to redeem and accrue miles, and access the 650 worldwide lounges in the alliance, wherever an Alaska customer is, make their Mileage Plan benefits go so much further.
We also have an alliance with American Airlines, the West Coast International Alliance, where our customers can access American’s international and domestic network across the country. All of this is huge in terms of accessibility and benefits, priority bags and priority boarding, so it’s a really exciting springboard for growth.
8. What do you want people to think of when they hear “Alaska Airlines”?
Minicucci: I want people to smile at the thought of Alaska Airlines and say, “Alaska’s a great company.” Not just because we’re a great airline, but also for what we stand for. Whether it’s racial equity, the environment, how we treat our people or how we treat our customers and run the business—it’s all done with the utmost integrity and through our values.
And when I say I want Alaska to be on the national map, it means I want people to say, “I wish they flew everywhere. I want them to fly everywhere so I can fly them all the time.”
Ben’s Firsts & Favorites:
First job in aviation: The Canadian Armed Forces.
First time on an airplane: “I was about 10 when I visited my grandparents in Italy. I can’t remember what type of aircraft or airline but remember sitting by the L1 door and it was very noisy.”
First job at Alaska + one thing from that job that stays with him: 2004, staff vice president of maintenance. “I’ll always remember a graveyard shift I worked with mechanics at the line and how much I enjoyed it.”
Favorite travel destination: Hawaii.
Must-pack item for any flight: Workout clothes.
Favorite sport: Cycling trips with friends. “We’ve been to Corsica, we’ve been to Italy, France, Spain – I just love doing big weeklong bike trips around the world.”
One thing people are surprised to learn about you: “My taste in movies. I love to laugh, and I love movies that are silly – like Will Ferrell movies. Everything from ‘Talladega Nights’ to ‘Wedding Crashers’ to ‘We’re the Millers.’ A lot of people think I’m into sophisticated stuff, but I just want to watch movies that make me laugh.”