Alaska Airlines delivers a dose of joy to a Navy mom battling cancer through our Gift of Travel 

The moment we united an active-duty service member and her cousin through the Gift of Travel

Heather Nysted could barely contain herself. She had just flown Alaska Airlines from Milwaukee to San Diego and was waiting to surprise her cousin, Amanda Bjyrd, a Navy corpsman, who is battling cancer. 

The moment she spotted Amanda the tears began to flow — happy tears, not sad. The two close cousins hadn’t seen each other in two years.  

It was all part of Alaska’s “Gift of Travel” program, which gives the magic of travel to individuals or groups who deserve it the most. This “Gift of Travel” provided trips for injured or ill veterans and service members to fly home during the holidays in partnership with the nonprofit Warrior Foundation Freedom Station in San Diego.  

However, when non-profit leaders told Alaska not every active-duty service member they help are able to fly because of medical conditions or issues, like Bjyrd, we knew we had to bring the holidays to them instead. That’s when Alaska orchestrated Nysted’s travel plans behind the scenes to make it a surprise—and all the more special. 

Being able to actually see her in person, and to give her a hug was so amazing. I am just so grateful to Alaska Airlines for this opportunity,” Nysted said. 

Two peas in a pod 

Bjyrd and Nysted grew up together. They were like sisters. When Bjyrd joined the Navy and was stationed in sunny San Diego, they kept in touch and planned to visit each other regularly.   

But life threw Bjyrd a curveball. 

Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2021, she confronted a barrage of treatments, surgeries and obstacles. Balancing the roles of mother, Navy hospital corpsman and cancer warrior, she took on the challenges with unwavering strength.  

But she allowed that stoicism to melt a bit when she saw her cousin in person. Having her “bestie” fly in to be with her for a few days was just what the doctor ordered.  

“She means the world to me,” Bjyrd said. 

Amanda Bjyrd (left) Navy Corpsman, and Heather Nysted 

The Gift of Travel 

Alaska’s “Gift of Travel” started as a grass roots effort to give back to those who deserve the magic of travel, but can’t because of personal, financial or other obstacles. 

“Our Gift of Travel ensures that these seriously ill and injured active-duty service members won’t spend the holidays alone,” said David Tucker, MD of public affairs in California. “Service members like Amanda make incredible personal sacrifices for us all. Being able to provide her a little bit of care and comfort is what our airline is all about.” 

Alaska is also giving the “Gift of Travel” to two dozen other veterans, who are supported by the Warrior Freedom Foundation, with roundtrip flights from San Diego to their hometowns or city of their choice for the holidays. Alaska’s own Military, Veterans & Allies (MVA) BRG group is also supporting the non-profit’s cause with a $2,500 donation.  

“When Amanda and Heather reunited, it was apparent just how meaningful Alaska’s Gift of Travel is for active service members and their families,” said Mia, an talent acquisition partner at Alaska and member of Alaska’s Military BRG. “We all cried, a lot.”

Planting our heart in California 

Alaska Airlines has continued to grow our California presence in 2023 with four new route announcements from San Diego, solidifying our position as the airline with the most nonstop destinations from the market.  In all of California, we’ll have launched nine new routes by the end of this year and added frequency to more than 30 more.  As we continue to grow our presence across the state, partnerships like this one with the Warrior Foundation Freedom Station show how much we care.