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Sometimes it is about the destination
Self-described “numbers geek” soars to the head of Alaska Airlines.
Brad Tilden serves as chairman and chief executive officer of Alaska Air Group, the parent company of Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air and Virgin America.
A Seattle native, Tilden joined his hometown PwC office after graduating from Pacific Lutheran University. Six years later, he was an audit practice manager in Melbourne, Australia.
“I loved Price Waterhouse,” Tilden says with a grin. “I really liked public accounting. I kind of thought I would stay and attempt to become a partner.”
Instead, in 1991, he received a call from a former PwC colleague who was director of general accounting for Alaska Airlines. She asked Tilden if he were interested in her job. “I’d never responded to any job offers while at Price Waterhouse,” Tilden recalls. But this one was different. “It was the airline industry. And, it was Alaska Airlines!”
Tilden accepted the offer. In 1994 he was named controller of Alaska Airlines and Alaska Air Group. He earned an executive MBA from the University of Washington in 1997 and became Alaska’s CFO in 2000. But it was in 2002, serving as EVP of Finance and Planning, that Tilden “earned his wings” by leading an ambitious restructuring of the company.
The effort trimmed $325 million1 from Alaska’s cost structure over three years. The company upgraded the fuel efficiency of its fleet, transitioned operations to a single airplane model (the Boeing 737), and made it easier for customers to shop online.
Tilden, who is now a 25-year veteran of the airline, describes himself as a numbers “geek” whose love of algebra came in handy not only in helping Alaska redefine how much customers could expect to pay for fares—but also where they went.
The result was a transformation in the value Alaska extracts from its hubs. “Fifteen years ago, we had a shot at 70% of the passengers traveling out of Seattle but only 50% of the revenue because we didn’t fly to New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Florida, or Chicago,” Tilden explains. When Alaska began flying to 27 of the top 30 markets out of Seattle, that revenue opportunity grew to 84%.
Under Tilden’s leadership, Alaska Airlines ranked highest in airline customer satisfaction among traditional carriers for the tenth consecutive year in the J.D. Power 2008-2017 North America Airline Satisfaction Study2. The airline also ranked No. 1 on-time major North American carrier, seven years in a row by FlightStats Inc.3, and Tilden himself was named #39 among the Top 50 Corporate Leaders in America by Fortune magazine4 in 2016.
In December 2016, Virgin America was acquired by Alaska Airlines5. The combined Alaska Airlines and Virgin America network offers 1,200 flights to 118 destinations across the US, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Cuba6.
Transformation on this scale takes a talented team, careful investments, and will power to see it through. Brad’s passion for Alaska Airlines and his early foundation in the rigors of public accounting are among the forces helping Alaska fly high from a base of customer-focused strategy and financial discipline.
2 J.D. Power, “North America Airline Satisfaction Study (2017) Traditional Carrier” May 10 2017