In Alaska, women running airlines no big deal

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- Alaska is a place where men are men and women run airlines.

Of the small sorority of female airline owners and operators worldwide, nearly all do business in Alaska, says Peggy Chabrian, executive director of Florida-based Women in Aviation International.

Although women have been involved in aviation since its infancy and the number of women in the industry is on the rise, it's still extremely rare for a female to be in charge of an airline, Chabrian said.

But Alaska has long accepted women in tough-as-nails occupations like logging, mining and fishing.

So for a woman to work in the airline industry, or even to own the company, is really no big deal, said Karen Casanovas, executive director of the 85-member Alaska Air Carriers Association.

''Nobody really gives it much thought. It's just the way it is,'' said Casanovas.

The association counts half a dozen to a dozen airlines in Alaska either owned by women or run by husband-and-wife teams.

Three airlines in Alaska -- F.S. Air Service Inc., Northern Air Cargo Inc. and Baker Aviation -- are run by the widows of men who started the businesses.

After commercial pilot Floyd Saltz died in a plane crash in 1998, his wife, Sandi Saltz Butler, took over Anchorage-based F.S. Air Service, which takes its name from the first initials of the couple.

Floyd and Sandi started the airline in 1986 with one airplane. Floyd Saltz was the sole pilot.

Today, F.S. Air has 10 planes that provide charter and jet ambulance services across Alaska. The airline also runs scheduled Anchorage-to-Seward flights.

''There are a lot of people out there that still think it's a man's world,'' said Butler. ''But I can't say up here it makes a whole heck of a lot of difference.''

F.S. Air Service has several female pilots, including its chief pilot, Kathy Whittington.

Northern Air Cargo Inc., the largest all-cargo carrier in the state, was founded in 1956 as partnership between Robert ''Bobby'' Sholton and Maurice Carlson.

Sholton died in 1982, and the airline is now run by his widow, Rita Sholton, who serves as chairman and chief executive officer.

Northern Air Cargo started as a charter air freight service with two C-82 ''Flying Boxcars,'' pioneering the shipment of oversize cargo to the Bush. Northern Air Cargo now operates a dozen aircraft, nine DC-6 aircraft and three Boeing 727s.

The company has 240 employees and earned $40 million in revenues in 2000.

Marge Baker, owner of Kotzebue-based Baker Aviation, runs a somewhat smaller operation. But it's vital to the northwest region of the state.

Baker declined an interview, saying she had an airline to run. But her children praised her dedication to the family and business.

Lori Henry says her mother was left with the airline and seven children when her husband, pioneer aviator Bob Baker, died in a plane crash in 1968.

''She managed the airline, built it up, took care of the kids -- all in the Arctic,'' Henry said. ''She's amazing.''

John Baker worked for 10 years for his mother as a pilot, but now devotes most of his time to dog mushing. He's a veteran of seven Iditarods.

''She is the type of boss that may be a little too caring, too sympathetic,'' John Baker said in admiration.

''My dad would definitely be proud of her,'' John Baker said.

For more than 30 years, Marge Baker has kept the family airline aloft and profitable, her children said.

Keli Mahoney and LeeAnn Wetzel own Talkeetna-based McKinley Air Service, or as they call it, ''Two Babes and a Bird.''

Eight years ago, the women started ferrying climbers to Mount McKinley and taking tourists on flightseeing trips there.

Mahoney is the pilot and Wetzel does the marketing and paperwork. Being a female pilot sometimes is a disadvantage when Outside male passengers are involved, Mahoney said.

Alaskans, Mahoney said, are indifferent.

''There is definitely not as much stereotyping and prejudice in Alaska,'' Mahoney said. ''We have more open spaces up here and a lot more independent souls.''

Mahoney also is a dog musher, having raced the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest twice each. Before moving to Talkeetna, Mahoney spent a couple of years in Bethel working for a small commuter airline. Before that, she flew commuter routes out of Boston for TWA.



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