Creating a Sustainable Airline with Alaska Airlines’ Jacqueline Drumheller

Alaska Airlines is the most fuel-efficient airline in the nation. How did it create a culture of sustainability?

 
John Shegerian: Welcome back to Green Is Good. This is the GoGreen edition of Green Is Good here in downtown Seattle. We are so honored to have with us today Jacqueline Drumheller. She is the Sustainability Manager for Alaska Airlines. Welcome to Green Is Good, Jacqueline. Jacqueline Drumheller: Thank you so much, John. This is a great conference. I’m having a lot of fun already. John Shegerian: Well, we are so happy you came with us. After 1,000 guests, you are our first airline to come on Green Is Good. Jacqueline Drumheller: That is awesome. I am so happy about that. John Shegerian: We’re so happy. We’re so honored. And before we get talking about your great airline that you work with, can you share a little bit about your background? How did you get interested in sustainability and eventually join Alaska Airlines and have now this great title and important role of Sustainability Manager? Jacqueline Drumheller: Well, that is sort of a long sordid tale, but I pretty much didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in college. I think I’m the only person who took seven-and-a-half years to get a Bachelor’s Degree because I changed my major from Art to Business to Biology. I was going to be a veterinarian of all things, but, alas, I didn’t have the parental support or the grades or the money to go to vet school. So I got my degree and I sat down with the L.A. Times back when they printed “help wanted” ads on paper and put them in the news and started going down the list going “Oh, let’s see, biologist. Oh, shoot nobody is hiring biologists this week. Let’s keep going down. Alphabetical order. Oh look, E, environmental. That sounds cool. I’ll be saving whales and stuff. Awesome.” So I went in and interviewed with this guy, and we just talked about our favorite restaurants for two hours. I went home and there was a message on my machine saying, “You’re hired – show up for work Monday morning.” I had no idea what they did. I got there. They were a hazardous waste disposal contract handling all the military hazardous waste in Southern California. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: So I slugged away for the next three years and eventually moved up. I actually met my husband at a hazardous waste disposal facility. It’s better than a bar. John Shegerian: Yes. Better than a bar. Not many people can say that probably. Jacqueline Drumheller: The people that I hang out with, quite a few of them can say it, which is kind of funny. John Shegerian: That’s funny. So you met your husband there. Jacqueline Drumheller: Yes. John Shegerian: And how long did you work in that industry? Jacqueline Drumheller: About three years. John Shegerian: OK. Jacqueline Drumheller: And I moved up here to be closer to him because this is where I met him. John Shegerian: So you moved to Seattle. Jacqueline Drumheller: Yes. It was like 20 years ago. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And I worked in consulting and engineering for a while. Typical stuff. Removing tanks and conducting soil investigations and things like that. And I saw the opening for a job at Alaska Airlines and I thought, “Cool, flight benefits,” right? And my whole family is in Southern California. “This is where I want to work. I want to work for this airline.” And I went in there and it was an environmental compliance job and I was tank-girl. We had an environmental regulatory deadline way back in 1998 that every single underground storage tank had to be upgraded or removed by December 22, so for the next two years I went around the state of Alaska removing underground storage tanks. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And, eventually, over the last 17 years – I have been employed there since I was 12 – over the last 17 years I started seeing the value of creating a sustainability program there. I was really frustrated. It was just a compliance job at the time, handling environmental rules and regulations, but there were enough like-minded people there that we started sort of getting together and forming a voluntary green team. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And we kicked off some projects. We got the CEO’s approval. I think I knocked him down in the hallway and stood on his chest and pointed at him and yelled at him for a while and I didn’t get fired, and he actually got a twinkle in his eye at some point – and it wasn’t for lack of oxygen – and said, “That sounds very interesting.” And I used that line. I said, “Bill, Air is very interested in this project.” “Oh yeah. OK.” John Shegerian: Got everybody motivated after that. Jacqueline Drumheller: Got everybody motivated. So one of our first projects was our in-flight recycling on the aircraft. John Shegerian: And how many years ago was that? Jacqueline Drumheller: That was about 2008. John Shegerian: OK. Jacqueline Drumheller: So it’s taken a while to get to the point where it was and my job slowly transitioned from being 100 percent environmental compliance to 100 percent sustainability. Every year 10 percent more sustainability and less compliance. John Shegerian: But that is part of what sustainability is anyway isn’t it, Jacqueline? It’s a journey anyway. Jacqueline Drumheller: Oh definitely. John Shegerian: So you have to start somewhere. Talk a little bit about 2008. You said recycling on the flights? Jacqueline Drumheller: On the flights. I think at that time we were the 13th largest carrier and now we are the sixth largest carrier. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And we have jumped over nobody. I think we are the sixth right now depending on who has merged or who has gone out of business. John Shegerian: Still, it’s nice to be number six instead of 13. That’s great. Jacqueline Drumheller: Yeah. But it’s so frustrating to see how all this waste on the aircraft doesn’t have any opportunity for recycling. John Shegerian: Right. Great thinking. Jacqueline Drumheller: In our homes, we recycle our bottles and our cans and our paper. Our passengers live in Seattle. In the Pacific Northwest. They are doing it at home. Our employees are all based in Seattle and Portland and around the Pacific Northwest for the most part, and they are recycling. Why can’t we do it on the planes? There were a lot of good reasons we couldn’t, but gosh darn, it we were going to try and find a solution for that. And sort of a ragtag group of green team people started learning more about it and trying some things and it eventually evolved to where it is today. It is now a service standard as far as what is expected of the flight attendants. We have a goal around reducing our landfill waste by 70 percent over the next five years. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And we are getting about a little over 80 percent of all the bottles, paper, cups, cans, all the recyclables comingled at every single place where we have a flight kitchen. So any place we are taking waste off the plane, it is going to a recycling collection area. John Shegerian: So talk a little bit about this is a very instructive because sometimes we have guests that come on that say they took over a green program or sustainable. You created this at Alaska Airlines from scratch. How do you besides saying “Bill said this is very interesting?” Jacqueline Drumheller: That’s a great line. Yeah. John Shegerian: How did you bring the team together and how big is the team today? Jacqueline Drumheller: It’s hard to say. I mean it wasn’t just me. John Shegerian: Yeah. Jacqueline Drumheller: It was our core team, and there are still some of the original members there, who are just as passionate. Like our catering manager, who is just as passionate about recycling and making improvements. So I think just having those people, being able to collude with them and get together with them and all be focused on the same thing even though it’s not our day job has its own energy. John Shegerian: Right. Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And we were fortunate to have people on our team who never call it quits and have a lot of determination and are willing to take some risks. So much of this stuff was just like you do it. John Shegerian: In 2008, for sure. Jacqueline Drumheller: Beg forgiveness later, right? John Shegerian: That’s right. Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: Yeah. I mean whatever underhanded tactic that we could get to push the envelope and move the ball forward is what we had to take. It had to be quick, down, dirty and easy. So that’s why a lot of the “Oh, Bill Air is interested in this project” kind of stuff came on like “Oh really?” I think at some point – it’s embarrassing – we even changed the company’s value statement without asking permission. Just added the words “the environment” in there kind of thinking, “Oh well, I guess somebody important must have wanted it done that way.” John Shegerian: That’s awesome. So for our audience members that just joined us, we’ve got Jacqueline Drumheller. She is the Sustainability Manager for Alaska Airlines. To learn more about Alaska Airlines, go to www.AlaskaAir.com. It’s also the airlines of Electronic Recyclers International when we fly from Fresno to Seattle, Washington. It’s a great airline. Jacqueline, talk a little bit now about the journey. 2008 to today. How did you evolve this, and were you doing this from the ground up or did you have other airlines or other paradigms that you were borrowing from? Jacqueline Drumheller: It was essentially from the ground up. Some things like our fuel conservation strategies. John Shegerian: OK. Jacqueline Drumheller: That’s always been part of us. We looked at it as a money saving strategy. John Shegerian: OK. Jacqueline Drumheller: Because fuel is one of our highest costs traditionally. So we have a lot of incentive to not use fuel. We don’t want to use fuel. We try and limit. Anything we can do to not use fuel is a good thing for us. John Shegerian: So let’s pause right there. So being green, being sustainable could be very good for the bottom line such as in fuel conservation. Jacqueline Drumheller: Definitely. Definitely. And then the other thing is like the in-flight recycling and some of our energy conservation and our electric vehicle fleet initiatives. As far as the journey is concerned we started off with the green team. We had those first seven projects or so and we were just relying on getting visibility, getting things done quickly and getting some attention around them. We knew that our sister carrier, Horizon Air, had been recycling for a long time. I think they started recycling in the late 1980s as part of some campaign to save aluminum can money for a sick flight attendant, like a cancer patient or something. John Shegerian: Got it. Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: And we always knew they did a great job and it sort of “Well, wait a minute – how can we talk about this great job if we don’t measure what we’re doing?” So we thought “Yeah, let’s.” We had some college intern help us out and show us how to weigh and measure our garbage that was coming off of our flights and they were like “Holy cow, Horizon is recycling two-thirds of all of their garbage.” I mean we always knew they did a great job but this is – we have numbers now – this is a kickass – sorry can I say that? Kickass job. John Shegerian: Yeah, of course. Absolutely. This is great. Jacqueline Drumheller: So this is amazing. And I was telling a friend about it and she said, “You should apply for some sort of an award,” and I’m like, “OK.” So I filled out some paperwork and sent it in. That year we won – 2010, I believe – Washington State Recycling Association Recycler of the Year for a Big Business. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And it was such a feel-good event, and it really gave that kind of buzz to everybody. They needed that incentive. That pat on the back. John Shegerian: Yeah. Jacqueline Drumheller: That external recognition. John Shegerian: “We did it. We did it.” Jacqueline Drumheller: And having some numbers to prove something. Right. So we were so proud of the award. We were displaying it everywhere and sharing it with everybody and tooting our horn internally about it and then the President of Alaska – the other carrier that I work for – is kind of like, “Oh, Horizon got an award for recycling? How come we don’t have an award for recycling?” “Well Brad it’s because we are behind our sister carrier. How do I say this? I think we should be recycling 100 percent.” They’re like “Oh, that’s a stretch goal, OK.” So it’s those little things where you keep getting recognition, you keep communicating about it, you get people excited about it, you start integrating it into the culture, the way we think of ourselves, you know? John Shegerian: Yup. Jacqueline Drumheller: And it’s not an easy thing to do. It has taken a long time to get to where we are now and we’ve had a lot of hiccups along the way. But with certain programs like what I was saying about our in-flight recycling program. John Shegerian: Sure. Jacqueline Drumheller: We had so much pushback issues and things that came up, but we got to the point where now everybody is like, “OK, this is part of what Alaska Airlines does. This is what our customers expect of us. This is what differentiates us. I’m not going to fight anymore – we’re doing it” kind of thing. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. Jacqueline Drumheller: Yeah. So it takes a while and it’s hard to describe that pathway there, but I think the persistence and the patience really pays off in those examples. John Shegerian: We’re going to come back to Alaska in a little while, but we are here today at the GoGreen Conference. Why is it important for you to be here today? What are you doing here today and how are you highlighting Alaska Air’s great sustainability program right now at this conference? Jacqueline Drumheller: Well, my boss, Joe Sprig, the Senior Vice President of External Relations and Corporate Communications, was a keynote speaker just a few minutes ago. John Shegerian: OK. Jacqueline Drumheller: And we are sponsoring the event which means we have a raffle later on – oh, I have my raffle ticket. John Shegerian: OK. Jacqueline Drumheller: They gave me a raffle ticket. I hope I win. For a pair of tickets which is really cool, because today we just announced that we are going to be flying to Costa Rica. We just made the announcement. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. Jacqueline Drumheller: And I’m really psyched about that. John Shegerian: Costa Rica directly from where? Jacqueline Drumheller: L.A. John Shegerian: L.A.? Jacqueline Drumheller: L.A. to Costa Rica. Yup. John Shegerian: Wonderful. You heard it here first today on Green Is Good. Alaska Air to Costa Rica. Jacqueline Drumheller: That’s right. John Shegerian: www.AlaskaAir.com. Go there and book your tickets now. Jacqueline Drumheller: Right. I can’t wait. Yeah, so we are trying to communicate more, and it’s one of those things we never really tooted our horn that much in the past and we’re kind of getting up to that point where we do need to toot our horn. People do need to be engaged. Our passengers need to know that not all airlines are the same, that we share their values. John Shegerian: That’s right. Jacqueline Drumheller: That they can help us too by packing light and not putting their napkin in their cup and things like that. John Shegerian: I want to go back to that because we are a solutions-based program. We want to give solutions to our audience. Talk a little bit about turning over – and that’s why we want people like you and brands like you to come on this show and share that with our audience. We have done that for seven years. What are you most proud of in this journey of sustainability at Alaska Air? What one or two programs can you point to to say, “Wow. We got that done and that looked like the biggest mountain, highest mountain to climb?” Jacqueline Drumheller: One of them I have already talked about and that is our in-flight recycling program. John Shegerian: Yeah. Jacqueline Drumheller: And I am proud of that because it was a grassroots effort in impassioned employees. John Shegerian: Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: And we had the ability and flexibility and the culture in the company to do that without nobody putting us down. John Shegerian: Yeah. Jacqueline Drumheller: “OK, do you want to invite recycle? Give it a go,” you know? John Shegerian: Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: But then the other thing I’m really proud of is everything we have done in fuel conservation with our aircraft. John Shegerian: That’s great. Jacqueline Drumheller: You don’t always realize this. When you are booking a flight on Expedia or whatever, and you find the cheapest airline that pops up, despite the fact that it’s two hours in Cleveland or something like that. John Shegerian: Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: I know people make purchasing decisions for a lot of products and services based on a social or environmental reputation of the organization. John Shegerian: That’s right. Jacqueline Drumheller: But maybe they don’t take environmental considerations with airiness, because they think they’re all the same. They don’t realize that they are different. So there is a study that comes out every year by the International Council on Clean Transportation. They are a nonprofit organization. They rank airlines according to fuel efficiency, and I am really proud to say we have come out number one for four years in a row. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: We tied for third place this last year, though, but we are going to pull out alone next year. I know we are. But it’s because of all the improvements that we’ve made, and you look at the list and you see that there is a huge range of fuel efficiency on all these airlines and the bottom of the list – I won’t say their name – every single passenger mile they fly uses 33 percent more fuel than one of our passenger miles. Why? Because they have a different approach. I mean, every airline has pretty razor thin margins and has a hard time staying afloat. That’s why we are the sixth largest carrier instead of the 13th largest carrier. John Shegerian: Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: But some airlines invest in a less expensive fleet. So they will buy used MD80s or something like that for pennies on the dollar instead of investing in brand new fuel efficient aircrafts instead. John Shegerian: Ah. Jacqueline Drumheller: So their capital costs are way down but their operating costs are way up. For us, it has always been about what is the most fuel-efficient airplane we can have? How do we fly it more efficiently? We developed some technology in the 1990s as a way of flying in and out of the great state of Alaska called “required navigation performance.” It allows us to shave miles off every route because we can use satellite based navigation to get there and not have to fly sort of convoluted routes around mountains or take off in a different direction because there is a navigation shadow sometimes. John Shegerian: Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: Something like that. We are actually starting to use it as of last summer to fly more strategic approaches into Sea-Tac Airport here called the “greener skies program.” So instead of doing this kind of – the worst part of any flight is when? John Shegerian: The landing. Jacqueline Drumheller: Well, and then the time you are stuck in the airplane waiting to get off the bloody plane. John Shegerian: Oh. Oh. Yeah. And you can’t even get to the gate. Jacqueline Drumheller: So I’m sitting in the plane and I am looking out the window and I am like, “Oh, there is Seattle. There is my home. Wait a minute. We’ve got to fly to Canada first and turn around and then land,” right? I mean, it’s not really Canada, but it seems that way. John Shegerian: Right. I understand. Jacqueline Drumheller: Right. That is the worst moment when you fly by your house because you just want to get off the plane. John Shegerian: That’s right. Jacqueline Drumheller: And so what we do instead with the navigation is we can fly a more direct route. John Shegerian: Got it. Jacqueline Drumheller: We don’t have to fly to Bellingham and turn back. We can wide into the airport instead of just doing this power-up, power-down thing, and by doing that, it probably saves us 60 gallons of fuel every time we approach the airport for every single flight. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: And if all the carriers that had this navigation technology used it it’s probably about 2.1 million gallons of fuel a year just saved on these approaches coming in to Sea-Tac. John Shegerian: So not only have you invested in the navigation technology, which makes you more fuel efficient, you have also on the Cap-X invested in better equipment, so you are more fuel efficient. So you are number one now in fuel efficiency? Jacqueline Drumheller: Yes, we are. John Shegerian: Number one. Alaska Air. If you want to be the greenest and fly the greenest, number one, Alaska Air. Talk a little bit about sustainability. Is there any outside organization yet that compared airlines on other sustainable behavior besides fuel efficiency or we haven’t gotten to that point in the sustainability evolution revolution yet? Jacqueline Drumheller: There are a lot of different organizations that rank airlines on their greenness and they all use different. John Shegerian: Metrics. Jacqueline Drumheller: Yeah. And it’s subjective. This one by the ICCT – I like them, because they have some science behind it. John Shegerian: Got it. We want to leave our listeners with a couple other tips from you. Jacqueline Drumheller: OK. John Shegerian: How can they be more green on any airline that they’re flying? How can their behavior be better to make to the flight and the whole process of travelling by air greener? Jacqueline Drumheller: That is an excellent question. So I think – and I try and be mindful of this when I’m getting ready to go on a flight – if you pack light, for example, I think we calculated that if every single one of our passengers packed just two pounds less in their suitcase, maybe that extra set of boots or something like that. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: We’d save something like – I’m not sure I’ve got the right number but – it’s about around 10 million gallons of fuel a year. John Shegerian: Whoa. Jacqueline Drumheller: And thinking about using a reusable water bottle and filling it up at the airport. Post-security of course. John Shegerian: Right. Jacqueline Drumheller: So you don’t have to get the water bottles or cups on the plane. And then I always make people take the pledge when they say they fly Alaska, I make them say – go ahead, you’re going to pledge. John Shegerian: OK. Jacqueline Drumheller: I promise. John Shegerian: I promise. Jacqueline Drumheller: Never to shove the pretzel package or the napkin into my Coke can. John Shegerian: I promise never to shove the pretzel package or napkin into this glass. Jacqueline Drumheller: Right. That way, the flight attendant can put it in the recycle container. John Shegerian: Wow. Jacqueline Drumheller: Keep them separate so we can get that can or that cup or that bottle off to a recycling facility instead of just taking it to a landfill. John Shegerian: So going back to keeping the streams to be recycled clean and therefore more recyclable. Jacqueline Drumheller: Right. John Shegerian: That’s a great pledge. That’s a great pledge. For our students out there, we have tons of entrepreneurs in the United States and around the world that are audience at Green Is Good. How do they become the next Jacqueline Drumheller? Jacqueline Drumheller: Oh boy. John Shegerian: In terms of their education, in terms of how to maybe – give them a little bit of some of your pearls of wisdom on the journey now. Jacqueline Drumheller: I don’t know that I’d want them to be the next Jacqueline Drumheller. John Shegerian: Oh come on, you’re being humble. Jacqueline Drumheller: I want them to be better than that. John Shegerian: Oh. Jacqueline Drumheller: I’m really excited. I get a lot of college students asking me that all the time. John Shegerian: Yeah. Jacqueline Drumheller: It’s really exciting to see. John Shegerian: Yeah it is. Jacqueline Drumheller: The younger generation and how articulate and impassioned and professional they are. I don’t remember being all that professional and savvy when I was that age. I think about me and how I fit in this position well, and I don’t know that it’s necessarily that I have a lot of technical skills. I don’t think that was it. I certainly can’t name any technical skills that I have. But I think Bob Landru, the former Director of CSR at McDonald’s, said that it’s the three P’s: It’s the persistence, passion and patience. And I think that’s really true. John Shegerian: So interesting. Jacqueline Drumheller: It’s having sort of broad skills. Good communication skills. Broad skills and a systems-thinking approach where you can pull in a whole bunch of information from a lot of places and plan strategically and methodically and make the case. So yeah. The three P’s. And I think too a lot of people want my job. Do you want my job? I think you want a job where you can start something perhaps. Those entrepreneurs out there, create it yourself. John Shegerian: You started this. Good for you. Jacqueline Drumheller: Yeah. You don’t want to step into my job. You want to go out there and find who isn’t doing it yet and get it going over there. John Shegerian: That’s great advice. Any final thoughts for our audience before we sign off today? Jacqueline Drumheller: No. Thank you for having me. John Shegerian: Oh, we are so honored to have you. For our listeners out there, Alaska Airlines is the number one fuel efficient airline out there, so you can go to their site and book your tickets now at www.AlaskaAir.com and from L.A. now flying to Costa Rica. Jacqueline Drumheller, you are an inspiring leader and a sustainability superstar and truly living proof that Green Is Good.