Q&A: Annabel Chang brings a passion for people as Bay Area VP for Alaska Airlines

Annabel Chang owes her life to an airport. The Alaska Airlines Bay Area vice president’s father was flying from Taiwan to Texas when he stopped for a layover at LAX. His family set him up with a young Pepperdine student, who agreed to meet him at the airport and show him around.

“The problem was, they didn’t have cell phones then and they had never met each other, so my mom had to use the paging system to find him,” Chang says. When they finally connected, they toured the city. “When my dad returned to Texas for grad school, he couldn’t stop thinking about my mom. My understanding is they moved pretty quick after that!”

Chang grew up 20 minutes south of the Los Angeles airport where her parents first met.  She first moved to the Bay Area to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley (she now sits on UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies National Advisory Council). After earning her juris doctor from Washington University in St. Louis and serving as a legislative staffer for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in Washington, D.C., Chang returned to the West Coast to practice law in San Francisco, where she was a prosecuting attorney for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

Chang, who lives in San Francisco with her husband, says she was drawn back to the Bay Area by the “food, culture, views and the people!”

Chang is Alaska Airlines’ first vice president in the Bay Area. The role was created in 2017, building on the integration with Virgin America and that airline’s success in the Bay Area over the past 10 years. Alaska keeps growing, especially in California, where it now offers nonstop service to 42 destinations from San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland.

Chang recently talked about her passion for bringing joy to travelers, her experience as a daughter of immigrants and as a female person of color in male-dominated fields, and her favorite place to take friends visiting San Francisco.

Tell us about your work as Alaska’s vice president, Bay Area.

On the internal side, I’m the senior leader here in the Bay Area and I want to be people’s point of contact — accessible to answer questions and help guide our strategy to help delight our customers. On the external side, we are building community visibility and brand awareness in the Bay Area and getting people prepared and excited for the integration with Virgin America.

What are some examples of ways you and your team are winning over the Bay Area?

Alaska recently expanded the Wine Flies Free program throughout California – so Mileage Plan members can check an entire case of wine for free when departing from 29 West Coast airports. It’s super exciting because it impacts some of the best wine regions, from urban wineries to vineyards in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, the Santa Cruz mountains, Napa and Sonoma.

Another example is our work with San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. On Valentine’s Day, we unveiled a 400 pound, 5-foot-tall sculptural heart at Terminal 2. It will have a semi-permanent placement. A heart is such a beloved symbol of the city, and now travelers have a visual representation of “leaving your heart in San Francisco.”

What favorite California wines would fly free with you?

I would take J Cuvee 20 Brut NV (because you shouldn’t have to wait for a special occasion to enjoy bubbles!). If pressed for a still white wine, I’d recommend Frei Brothers chardonnay.

How has your career led to this role?

I came from Lyft, a start-up that was going through exponential change. So the pace through the merger with Virgin America is pretty familiar! I love being part of a consumer brand and I particularly love it at Alaska, because our job is to touch people’s daily lives and that is such an extraordinary opportunity. Transportation connects families, makes business run, and is one of the greatest innovations of our country. That, to me, is really exciting.

Both of your parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. What did growing up as a daughter of immigrants teach you?

Annabel Chang says she learned empathy and fortitude from her family – dad Simon, mom Charlene, and younger sister Diane.

Empathy is number one, and number two is that I don’t shrink from a challenge.

Almost all of our immigrant family members have their own businesses. I’m the first person in the family to go to law school and work in corporate America. So those are a lot of firsts, on top of the firsts of my parents.

That taught me how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And since I didn’t have family members with experience in my field, I had to have the confidence to look for help. In that way, it has taught me a lot about self-reflection and just the fortitude to truck on into unknown areas.

What’s amazing is that I have found so many people who want to support and elevate others. I take a lot of deep pride in mentoring younger people because people have taken the time to do that for me. I’m paying it forward and I enjoy it.

How have those lessons applied as a woman and person of color in male-dominated industries?

In the past, I’ve observed in numerous settings – from large lectures to business meetings – that when there’s a Q&A session, most questions are asked by males. In one previous instance, I actually wanted to try an experiment and emailed a group of women and said next week, let’s ask questions at our large group meeting. The very next meeting, we had several women in a row ask questions. It was such a refreshing change.

That is something that I had to train into myself: I have just as much of a stake in the outcome of this conversation, and if I’m ever confused, I should ask clarifying questions. What I realized in the end is that everyone in the audience benefits from hearing the questions and answers.

It’s a really good training for young people, people of color and women to ask questions. It’s a good place to start to practice public speaking and leadership skills.

How do your experiences at a start-up shape your business judgment?

I think Virgin America was so successful because they took an industry and looked for ways to disrupt it and innovate, which is what start-ups do. From music to lighting to a fun, sassy attitude, those are things you didn’t expect in an airline and they brought joy and fun to the experience. Alaska is bringing in a lot of those elements. And that is how we win people over. People look forward to their flight because we’re bringing joy and glamor and luxury to travel again. It’s that high-class touch at a value.

You were recently named one of the “40 under 40” business leaders in the San Francisco Business Times. What does that mean to you?

It was an extraordinary honor. We are in the turf of entrepreneurs and innovators and to be recognized – along with Alaska Airlines – was remarkable. As a millennial, it’s a significant honor because my generation is doing great things and we have a big impact on our economy and in business.

Window or aisle?

Always window for short flights, but aisle for longer flights!

Where do you take out-of-town visitors for a great meal?

We can eat our way through the San Francisco Ferry Building: chocolate, coffee, wine, oysters, cheese, and Humphry Slocombe ice cream – all the good things in life!