The Snowball Express folks lined up on the tarmac in Atlanta with some familiar faces – Photo: Jason Rabinowitz
The sun had yet to rise over the control tower at New York’s JFK Airport on the cold December morning, but the party at Terminal 8 was already well underway. This was no ordinary day at JFK. For the ninth consecutive year, American Airlines was beginning a long day of charter flights, celebration, and remembrance with the Snowball Express program.
Since 2006, Snowball Express has partnered with American Airlines to provide a weekend of fun for families that have lost a family member in active military duty since September 11, 2001. American Airlines provides the flights from around the country free of charge for all families, and the scope of the operation is absolutely massive.
The New York passengers of Snowball Express pre-flight at the Christmas tree in American’s terminal – Photo: Jason Rabinowitz
Throughout the day, flights operate from their origins and converge on Dallas while picking up additional passengers at 62 cities. This year, American utilized ten aircraft to support Snowball Express flights, ranging from regional jets to Boeing 757s and Airbus A321s. In total, over 150 American Airlines pilots and flight attendants donated their time to the charter flights. The Snowball Express operation is larger than that of some entire airlines.
The Snowball flight out of New York, operated by a Boeing 737-800, made two stops along the way to Dallas – Norfolk, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia. Before departing JFK, the day kicked off with an upbeat party adjacent to the Admirals Club, complete with DJ, photo booth, and emotional support dogs dressed up like Santa. Before long, it was time to depart for Norfolk, but not before a touching send off from the NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority Police Department, TSA, and JFK employees. Once on board, however, the real fun began.
The Honor Flight Veterans gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial – Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com
Early in the morning, men were arriving at Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Wittman Regional Airport. They all had one thing in common; they were heading to Washington D.C. on a very special charter flight.
Each one had been selected by the Northeast Wisconsin Old Glory Honor Flight & Experimental Aviation Association due to their service during the Vietnam War. The four main armed services (Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines) were represented by the 110 veterans taking the flight.
I was invited to accompany them in order to experience the Honor Flight and to tell their story.
iPhone photo I was able to take of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 and the fallen soldier baggage cart at the airline's maintenance facility in Seattle during a special Veteran's event in November 2011.
Today is Memorial Day, where hopefully most people are able to at least take a moment and think about those who have given the ultimate sacrifice serving our country. It is a day where it shouldn’t matter if you support war or even what political party you vote for. It should be a day where we remember those men and women who have been killed while serving in the armed forces.
When a solider dies while serving, it is a delicate process to bring their body back home. There are special military protocols that airlines must follow when transporting the remains of a fallen solider, but some airlines don’t want to do the bare minimum. Each body must have a volunteer escort that follows the fallen solider from the mortuary to their final resting place.
About a year ago, Alaska Airlines technicians realized that the process of transporting a fallen solider was lacking and they looked to improve it.
“We noticed a lot of violations of military protocols due to a lack of awareness and training,” said Brian Bowden, an Alaska Airlines line aircraft technician. “Our goal is to show respect by ensuring the proper standards are followed.”
Bowden and 13 other technicians created a new “Fallen Solider” program to, “seamlessly transfer the remains of soldiers killed in action through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.” Part of that program was creating a special baggage cart that would only be used to transport fallen soldiers. The cart was refurbished with carpet and has a retractable American flag curtain with plaques representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
The program gives details on how to properly load and unload a soldier’s remains, as well as taking care of the escort or families. “These brave men and women sacrificed their lives for you and me,” line aircraft technician Tony Sander stated. “Often, their families are traveling alongside the fallen soldier. Mishandlings are embarrassing and unacceptable.”
Escorts will fly in the main cabin, while the fallen soldier will fly in the cargo hold. During layovers, escorts need to stay with the fallen soldier at all times and that can be challenging. Alaska has gone out of their way to provide escorts or others travelling with the remains, a working station at the airline’s maintenance facility. Airline crew will also make sure that the escort is well fed during any down time and cater to any of their other needs.
Many of the technicians who worked on the program are veterans themselves and take great pride in taking care of their own. “The technicians wanted ownership. The group has many passionate ex-military members who re-designed the process completely on their own time,” said Paul Taylor, director of line maintenance. “They took decisive action and lived up to their word.”
The program has been so successful that it has spread beyond Seattle and to other airports. “This process needs to reach all the airports we serve. Training at our other sites would spread a deeper respect for all the fallen soldiers of our armed forces,” technician Bowden said.
An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 coming in for a landing. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.
A big cheers to Alaska Airlines and the technicians who took the initiative to do the right thing.
On top of the Fallen Soldiers program, Alaska has a 100 person Employee Military Resource Group whose sole focus is to hire, retain and promote military employees.
Alaska has also recently started a new apprentice program, aimed directly at military experience and the transition to civilian/corporate work. Alaska proudly employees veterans who work in all capacities from maintenance to flying to the executive offices.
What you think about war or your political beliefs should really have no influence on your support for those who have chosen to sacrifice many different aspects of their lives to serve in the armed forces. Every time I fly around the world for fun, I think about those who are constantly flying around the world for a very serious mission and I always appreciate that.
For those of you veterans who have served previously or are serving today, I offer a huge thanks and my support.