Six things to know about Alaska’s new DEI Director James Thomas

James Thomas in March 2021 / photo by Ingrid Barrentine

This week we are thrilled to welcome James Thomas, an exceptional leader who will help lead Alaska Airlines in delivering on our commitments and goals as director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Thomas joins us from the world of wine at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates near the Seattle area, serving as its first-ever director of inclusion, equity and diversity. We couldn’t be more excited to work with James, and we know he will do great things for our guests, employees and company.

I have always said this work is about humans,” said James. “My motto is: ‘if I can help just one person, then I’ve made a difference.’”

Learn more about him, his vision for Alaska’s DEI efforts and, of course, where he wants to fly next below.

Q&A with James Thomas

1. What are you most excited about in your new role at Alaska, and what do you hope to achieve?

James flew Alaska on his first ever trip to Hawaii and Oahu back in 2013—he says it’s one of his favorite trips.

James: I’m a believer that timing is everything, and nothing happens by chance. This stage we’re at in our DEI journey right now is powerful, and I’m excited to be part of it. I’ve always been an Alaska guest, and I’m even more of a fan now that we’re taking bold and courageous steps in the DEI space. I hope to continue to push us on that path, perhaps in ways we haven’t considered.

I know it sounds cliché, but I want to leave it better than I found it. More importantly, I want to make a systemic change that lives beyond any one person. That’s the measure of true change.

2. What’s your take on our DEI goals and commitments – do you have thoughts on how to achieve them, and is there an area you see that needs more attention?

James: I was thrilled to see Alaska’s goals and commitments. To come out publicly and share what the organization wants to accomplish is commendable. I also believe commitments and goals are only as good as the ability to execute and achieve them; otherwise, they are just words.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this work, and it requires thoughtful conversations, intentions and time to create meaningful, lasting change. That said, we will need to be intentional in moving from a space of dialogue and conversation to action.

My first objective is to listen to understand the unique challenges we face at Alaska. From there, we will take strategic steps forward to address this work. I’m eager to tackle the goal of cultivating an inclusive environment that supports our company’s ability to recruit, develop and retain talent. It’s imperative our employees feel safe and welcome, seen and valued, and they can authentically show up every day and be themselves.

I also believe diversity, equity and inclusion help our business. I’m looking forward to helping educate leaders on leveraging diversity to grow our company and create an inclusive brand all customers feel connected to.

3. Where would you like to see Alaska’s DEI program in 3 to 5 years?

James: I’d like to look back and say as a company that we exceeded our goals and are a leader in the DEI space. More than anything, I want guests and employees to say they feel and experience what we say they should experience. So when we say our commitment is guests should always feel welcome on board and our employees deserve to feel safe and a sense of belonging when they come to work, it isn’t just words but truly their experience. The result is as, if not more, important as the desire and commitment to get there.

4. What lessons will you bring to the aviation industry from the wine industry?

James: In the wine industry, a great vino is all in the details. Many variables make or break wine, from the types of grapes used to the fermentation process to the temperature during the winemaking process and more.

BTS of James’ interview with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates CEO David Dearie for the launch of “Diversity Under the Cork,” an internal video series he created and launched focused on authentic conversations about diversity.

The airline industry is similarly unique because it’s the gateway to the world — serving and employing people from around the globe with different cultures, languages and backgrounds. The details may not always be apparent at first glance, but they are essential.

Alaska has a rich history and reputation synonymous for many with quality and customer service. The differentiator will be our ability to identify the details and be the best at them. I’m looking forward to helping Alaska be better at executing the details of DEI that will help improve the overall employee and guest experience while contributing to business excellence and growth.

5. If you haven’t traveled during the pandemic, where is the first place you’ll fly?

James: Although I have safely traveled during the pandemic (albeit locally in the states), I’m looking forward to traveling internationally.

A socially distant selfie in the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma from Oct. 2020. James visited Ste. Michelle Wine Estates employees and properties in the aftermath of the California wildfires to ensure they were okay.

I had a trip to Europe planned for 2020, which included one of my bucket list countries of Portugal. Unfortunately, because of COVID, my trip had to be canceled. When things get better, I’d like to get this trip back on the schedule for sure.

6. Fun fact about you:

James: Many people don’t know I have a Harley motorcycle and like to ride on a sunny, warm day in beautiful Washington state. I’ve only been riding for eight years, but I tell people I love the way the wind feels blowing through my hair (wink, wink).

James on his motorcycle.

Join us in welcoming James Thomas to Alaska!