SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

RIP: Golden Nugget Service
By Dave Kiffer


May 19, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - Our national airline, Alaska, is choosing this month - May - to make us jump through some big wild hoopla over its 75th anniversary. Alaska celebrating its history all the way back to Mac McGee and his three-seat Stinsons in 1932.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Oddly enough, I had the "pleasure" of flying Alaska Airlines twice recently to the East Coast and back and I certainly felt the echoes of McGee's drafty old seaplanes. Especially when it came to the in-flight amenities. In the old days, McGee might have offered a hot thermos of coffee. And that's really about all you get 75 years later! (see below).

Of course in the modern world, you also get digi players instead of iced up windows and panoramic views. Fair enough. Nothing like a showing of "Borat" to take your mind off the turbulence over the Mid West.

But don't even think of getting up to use the rest room. The line was about 10 deep (not in first class of course, but 9/11 and heightened class consciousness now has totally shut off the forward restroom from the hoi polloi. First class also gets something approximating real food from the airline, but as usual I digress (see below)).

Among the other amenities not available to McGee's passengers is the vaunted in-flight magazine. This month (May) it is chock-a-block with info relating to the 75th anniversary.

Unfortunately all the neat photos and references to Alaska's past didn't exactly get me feeling warm and fuzzy about the airline's present. Kind of like how baseball old-timers games trot out the legends and get you wondering how come the current players are such bums.

After sating myself with all things Alaska Airlines, all I can say is "where have you gone Mac McGee, Bob Ellis, ''Mudhole' Smith, and Shell Simmons." Heck, I find myself even pining for Charlie Willis, Ron Cosgrave and Bruce Kennedy. In their place are people who think that you can sell your service "soul" for $750 a flight (see below).

Remember back in 1973 when the airline experimented with different designs on the tails of its fleet of 727s. First there was the unsmiling Eskimo face. Pretty soon, AK Air realized a grumpy "elder" was not the best "face" for the airline and they repainted him with upturned lips and smile wrinkles. So it goes.

There were also totem and orthodox cupola designs but neither stayed around very long either.

My personal favorite was the "goldpanner" face which actually looked exactly like legendary Skagway con-man Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith. Given changes in airline policy (see below) I think Soapy got a spot in the boardroom when he was bumped from the plane tails.

One of the most fascinating parts of the historical retrospective were the photos from the 1960s heyday of "Golden Nugget" service.

It was inaugurated with a Dixieland band complete with a piano. To be honest, they didn't use the jazz band for the trips I was usually on, the ones between Ketchikan and Seattle. But I still remember the fancy red seat covers and the cheery Gay 90s feel to the planes in those days. And the food was something to proud of. Three course meals with spuds, real vegetables and some form of beef.

I remember a television comic making a joke that new federal regulations were going to require that airline food actually taste like "something." We snickered because Alaska had always been too proud to resort to service the drek that passed for sustenance on other airlines.

A little later, Alaska added "Golden Samovar" service in order to publicize their charter flights to the Soviet Far East. Once again, the emphasis was on how Alaska was "different" from the other carriers, how it valued "service" above mere profit.

That was obviously then, this is now.

As usual, a slight disclaimer. I think the people that work for Alaska Airlines are the best in the business. The pilots, the attendants, the maintenance people all work as hard as possible to make flying on Alaska a pleasant experience.

Unfortunately the corporate types, particularly the bean counters have also been working hard, working hard to squeeze every last drop of pleasure out of flying our national airline.

Alaska now flies cross country. In an era when we collect "miles" voraciously, this is a good thing. Suddenly those miles can get us to New York, to Miami, to Boston, to Mexico even. Soon, reportedly, they may even get us to Hawaii.

But the cost - besides the high credit card bills that generate the miles - seems to be in the quality of the flight.

Sure, Golden Nugget and Golden Samovar service are a part of the airline's storied past (i.e ancient history). But did they have to get replaced by "service" that makes some so-called discount air carriers look positively spendthrift in comparison.

For example, "snacks" that once were better that other carriers' "meals" (we used to joke about how the other lines only offered peanuts for long flights) have disappeared from the Ketchikan to Seattle run. What you get is. Well, what you get is peanuts. Or maybe pretzels. At least that's what they call them. If I didn't know better I'd think they were some sort of new compressed sawdust snack. Twice the fiber of your regular pine tree!

Sure, sure, once again you could say that the locals are taking it in the stomach in order to allow AK Air to be able to offer those really cheap fairs between Seattle and California where there is "competition."

But the food "service" is equally putrid on the cross country flights too.

In the old days, it would be unthinkable for a 4 or 5 hour flight to not include the best possible food service. That's a long time to be crammed into an accommodation roughly the size of a child's car seat (how come seats are getting smaller even as our bottoms are expanding?). So the least they can do is fill you up to help pass the time.

Au contraire. If you want "food" on the journey, you have to pay for it. Really. Five dollars a serving. That's extra from the cost of the trip. If all 150 people on the flight had ordered the meals (which they didn't - see
below) then the airline would have grossed the grand sum of $750. That's about as picayune as it gets.

But if you are paying extra, the food will be good right? Not exactly.

On my most recent 2,306 mile adventures they offered two choices from their "Northern Bites" (yes it does, it really does) menu.

One was a country sausage breakfast skillet that featured eggs ala rancid and sausage ala mystery meat that was clearly from a "country" that is not on this earth.

The other option was the "picnic pack." It featured crackers, pita chips, apple sauce, a granola bar and a tiny candy bar. Oh yeah, it also had some powdered energy supplement and a can of tuna.

Tuna? For goodness sake, at least a tiny smidgen of salmon would show a little more Alaska spirit.

Isn't that what we're supposed to be celebrating here?


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2007

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