I Flew from SFO to SFO with Kristi Yamaguchi Just For the Hell of It

Hopping onboard an Alaska Airlines flight to nowhere in honor of its improved Airbus fleet.

(Photo courtesy Alaska Airlines)

Corporations like to woo press in the hopes that it will make them more money, so when my editor urged me to accept the invitation to Alaska Airlines’ Media Day, I was skeptical.

“I am a Serious Journalist,” I thought to myself, overlooking my recent article about a retired bookstore cat’s new life on Instagram. But, like many of us who do things for the story, I liked the thought of being able to say I took a flight that departed from San Francisco International Airport with the full intention of coming right back an hour-and-a-half later. (But not the thought of a frivolous addition to my carbon footprint — the 380-mile trip produced about 20,254 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to BlueSkyModel.)

Alaska Airlines, about two years out from its takeover of Virgin America, wanted to show off its new, modern interiors of its Airbus fleet so my editor persuaded me to go. I arrived at SFO with a slightly bitter outlook that it wasn’t for a vacation I’ve been too indecisive to plan, but feeling relaxed that I wasn’t rushing to a flight on my little but swift-moving legs like usual.

A group of us were taken to the airport-employee screening room that runs parallel to the Terminal 2 security checkpoint. I’ll admit I internally gloated — until I saw the brown spots from a ceiling that’s coping with the rain very well. Feelings of exclusivity — hey, it’s rare for a far-from-rich journalist — promptly returned once I made it to the gate’s walled-off space, complete with the sight of a hired photographer’s camera peering over for a semi-aerial view.

While airline business folks and partners like Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi mingled, I took refuge in two breakfast sandwiches Alaska serves on flights at a table full of airline engineers. I promised them I didn’t inherit my Boeing-engineer mother’s bias against Airbus. 

One of them tipped me off to the presence of Seattle Chocolates Champagne-flavored truffles, filled with a Pop Rocks-like candy that I’m still processing. They later convinced me to check out the display of the new First Class chair with a tablet holder, cushy upholstery, and footrest I’ll likely never sit on. (Sigh. But also, less carbon impact, right?)

Nearby, mannequins modeled new flight attendant uniforms, a GoGo representative explained the wifi technology that allows for high-speed streaming, and glowing cubes showed off the ambient mood lighting that’s likely inspired by Virgin America’s purple love-nest glow. The remodel was exciting enough to Alaska Airlines to warrant a 45-minute press conference that emphasized a West Coast vibe and two power outlets at each seat, which is undoubtedly convenient.

An “SFO –> San Francisco” boarding pass to keep.

Then came time for the flight, which, of course, was delayed about 50 minutes. Originally meant to swing by Palmdale, it ended up flying around the Bay Area, comfortably as expected. The irony of barely being able to move in the bathroom while a marketing executive’s voice on the PA told me that customer comfort was a priority was not lost on me, though.

But after two people came up to the woman across the aisle from me asking for a photo, it dawned on me that it could be Yamaguchi, who inspired me to take ice skating lessons as a kid but whose face I hadn’t seen in years. By the time the Salt & Straw ice cream came out and we shared a giggle over our inability to stick the flat plastic spoon into the frozen dairy, I was certain.

I asked Yamaguchi why she was on this plane to nowhere — even though I barely understood why I was. Turns out, Alaska Airlines is a corporate sponsor for a seasonal outdoor ice rink in San Jose called Kristi Yamaguchi’s Downtown Ice. Her Always Dream Foundation, which focuses on early literacy, is also a partner. Though she’s got a working relationship with the airline, this type of event was new to her as well.

“This is the first time I’ve ever come to something like this,” Yamaguchi said.

Olympic figure skaters: They’re just like us.

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