Despite introducing 727s and swallowing several smaller Alaskan operators, the early 1970s was another difficult time for Alaska Airlines, which had been leading a hand to mouth existence for many years. Led by the wheeler dealing, but also irascible and dictatorial, Charles "Chuck" Willis Alaska had a mountain of debt, poor reputation and very little cash. Change was needed if the airline was to survive.
The crash of a 727 in late 1971 only piled on the pressure further and by 1972 the airline owed $16 million to its creditors. When in February Chevron, who was owed $600,000, threatened to cut off Alaska’s fuel supplies, and went as far as contacting the CAB and the Alaska Governer about its intentions, it was clear something had to change.
Things came to a head on May 12 and at a special board meeting Willis was removed. He didn’t go quietly but the coup was successful and somewhat reluctantly he was replaced by Ronald F. Cosgrave, a board member who had gotten his start in business providing Alaskans with mobile homes. He would see an overhaul of Alaska's poor image including its livery.
When Cosgrave tookover Alaska in 1972 the airline was in dire straits. It only had annual revenues of $34 million yet owed close to $20 million in debts. The airline was known unflatteringly as 'Elastic Airlines' due to its poor schedule keeping and service. Cosgrave didn’t shy away from acknowledging the mess the airline was in and picked Continental Airlines as a model of how to run a carrier. He arranged for leadership meetings with Continental, which through Bob Six was a well-run, profitable and competitive trunk airline.
One of the things Continental recommended was to do one thing well, and Cosgrave agreed. He sold off the many hotel properties and closed the cargo division down. Alaska would concentrate on being a passenger airline first and foremost. After a loss of over $2.5 million in 1972, 1973 brought a small profit of $440,000 with a 40% increase in boardings. After 1973 there would in fact be 19 years of profits to come.
The resulting versions were:
Each version of the scheme had the same fuselage striping but in the chosen colour of the tail design. A few aircraft even had their interiors colour matched to the livery. The most popular of the four variants was that of the Eskimo, who in the original incarnation did not smile.
The scheme was worn by at least 9 Boeing 727s. As well as the 5 727s from the early 70s at least four of five ex-Pan Am 727-21s, acquired in 1975, definitely wore versions too. The last of these was delivered in November 1975 proving that the scheme survived at least until then. In addition, Alaskana graphics were seen on a Grumman Goose, a 707-320 and a Convair CV-240. Several Boeing 720s also wore non-standard versions.
The Alaskan graphics continued on the small fleet for 3 or 4 years but Alaska Airlines itself only had 6 jets and having four separate schemes increased costs and diluted the brand. In 1976 the airline standardised on the Eskimo who gained his smile at the same time as part of the ‘Fly with a happy face’ campaign.
The Eskimo proved popular but mildly controversial since it was based at least partly on a real person. Chester Seveck Downey was an elderly Eskimo gentleman who worked at Kotzebue as a greeter for the airline on its Arctic tours. Warren had various photos of him and others and used one as the basis for the artwork.
Interestingly within the Alaska Airlines history written by Robert J Serling and involving interviews with many of the employees and leadership from the time there is much confusion over the schemes and whether Seveck is really the image on the tail. A 2016 article from the Anchorage Daily News also suggests there is uncertainty however on Vic Warren’s own website page he talks in detail about the the design of the logo and confirms Seveck is the person. Warren isn’t mentioned in any of the other sources but presumably he is telling the truth.
The Eskimo has continued to remain Alaska’s logo to this day, although a replacement was considered in 1988. Alaska Airlines itself has been such a success that it is not really an Alaskan airline anymore having successfully breached the lower 48 and survived the deregulation maelstrom. I really like the Alaskana graphics and think they'd make very impressive retrojets on some 737-900s!
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: