How Alaska Airlines connects rural communities with lifesaving health care 

Photos by Joe Nicholson

When Nichole learned she had a brain tumor, she was 450 miles and two flights away from home.  

Nichole was at her regular doctor appointment in Anchorage, where she traveled twice a year from the rural community of Kongiganak via an Alaska Airlines flight from Bethel. The vertigo and muscle weakness she thought were symptoms of Meniere’s disease were actually caused by a softball-sized tumor, and Nichole’s diagnosis meant an emergency flight to Salt Lake City for three surgeries, six weeks of recovery, and multiple flights between Kongiganak and Anchorage for radiation treatments. She was terrified.

“I just didn’t realize I actually had cancer,” she said. “I had a major mental breakdown when I found out I had an oncologist.”

Nichole had a large meningioma removed from her brain in January 2021 in Salt Lake City. 

Every day, Alaska Airlines sees patients like Nichole coming through Bethel and other communities throughout the state on their way to receive vital health care in Anchorage, Seattle and elsewhere in the lower 48, and we find ways big and small to care for those guests who need extra help along the way. 

“You get to know people as they come and go, and what their needs are going to be,” said Carla S., a lead customer service agent in Bethel who has worked for Alaska Airlines for 11 years. “You know if they’re going to need extra help getting onto the plane or help when they get to Anchorage. It’s a daily thing out here connecting people.”   

Last year, the local hospital, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), arranged for more than 70,000 flights on Alaska Airlines out of Bethel, a hub for over 50 rural communities in the region.  

Carla S., a lead customer service agent in Bethel who has worked for Alaska Airlines for 11 years.

A lot of times we know these people, or we’re related to them,” said Carla, who grew up in one of these communities. “We try to make people smile and make their day brighter, especially when you know that they’re going through something tough.” 

A gift of donated miles goes a long way

Nichole has taught social studies to Kongiganak seventh- through 12th-graders for eight years, and she loves her life there.  “This is home and where I feel the most myself,” she said. But the remote location makes securing health care more complicated and expensive, compounded when lifesaving cancer treatments required multiple trips. 

Nichole teaches social studies in Kongiganak. Her brain tumor has responded well to treatment.

A gift of donated miles by Alaska Airlines and telecommunications provider GCI to the American Cancer Society (ACS) of Alaska allowed Nichole to focus on battling cancer rather than stressing over the travel costs.

“I wouldn’t have been able to stay where I love and maintain the level of care I have without their help,” she said.  

ACS’ Flight Partner program also covered the cost for her then-fiancé to fly with her to care for her while she traveled. Because of the radiation treatment she received in Anchorage, her prognosis is good. She continues to recover and is back teaching in Kongiganak. “Thank you, a million times over,” she said. 

Patients in rural Alaska have no choice but to fly to receive specialized health care, said Charissa Habeger, American Cancer Society’s director for the state of Alaska, and very serious diagnoses often require travel outside the state.

“It’s a wild concept for folks in the lower 48 that it’s really impossible to get from Point A to Point B in the state without flying,” Habeger said. “That’s why this flight partnership program for the American Cancer Society is so important, and it really is unique to Alaska and Hawaii. No other states have a flight partnership program.” 

Caring service on the ground and in the air

The team in Bethel plays another vital role in the community’s health care, shepherding the time-sensitive medications shipping in through Alaska Air Cargo to the local YKHC hospital, as well as clinic patients’ lab samples shipping out. According to Carla, those lab samples must go out that day to Anchorage or Seattle because they have limited time to stay viable. Like most team members in Bethel, she works with both cargo and passengers. 

Carla shared the Bethel team keeps an eye out every day for guests who need extra time or assistance—especially those guests who can’t navigate the stairs from the tarmac into the aircraft. The team has a DPL (Disabled Passenger Lift) truck that can drive guests out to the plane and lift them to reach the door, and she tries to ensure that those who need the service know about it. 

After years helping thousands of patients traveling to appointments, Carla also has picked up some travel tips that she shares:  

  • She advises guests traveling from smaller communities to pack light, if possible, so they don’t have to take time to check baggage.  
  • Allow for more time than they think they need to make their connections.  

“We know that they’re trying to get there for a hospital appointment that they’ve been waiting for weeks or months, so we do everything we can to help make sure they are on their flight,” she said. 

The team’s caring service is valued and appreciated, said Nichole, who noted that Alaska Airlines is her first choice when she travels. “I fly with them almost exclusively because they take such good care of us,” she said. “Those are my plane people.”