Resting In Peace
Alaska Airlines maintenance 'angels' shepherd fallen soldiers flying home
8/17/2011 12:01 p.m.
The nine-hour layover came during an airborne journey spanning one-third of the distance around the world: Guam to Honolulu to Houston before touching down in Seattle. Yet, Master Sgt. Scott Binnie was not exhausted, hungry or stressed.
Binnie, who volunteered to escort the remains of a fallen airman from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, sat comfortably in Alaska Airlines' Seattle Hangar as he waited to complete his flights to Spokane, Wash., and, finally, Lewiston, Idaho, where the airman would be buried.
"The maintenance personnel at Alaska Airlines are outstanding," Binnie said. "They set me up in an office where I could make phone calls, check the status of my flight and eat a hot meal."
Protocol requires military escorts to stay with the remains of a fallen soldier from the time they leave a mortuary until they arrive at their final resting place. The remains are shipped as cargo, but escorts accompany the casket into holding facilities between flights.
What Binnie experienced during his long stay in the hangar was Alaska's new "Fallen Soldier" program, a process that 14 aircraft technicians developed to seamlessly transfer the remains of soldiers killed in action through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
"We noticed a lot of violations of military protocols due to a lack of awareness and training," said Brian Bowden, an Alaska Airlines' line aircraft technician. "Our goal is to show respect by ensuring the proper standards are followed."
Four months ago, several technicians volunteered to develop a new transfer process and suggested it to maintenance leadership for approval. The program spells out details on loading and unloading, the distribution of responsibility for each transfer stage, pre-huddle checklists and escort handling.
Determining the different formalities for each military branch and standardizing processes involved a lot of outside homework, Line Aircraft Technician Tony Sander said.
"These brave men and women sacrificed their lives for you and me," he said. "Often, their families are traveling alongside the fallen soldier. Mishandlings are embarrassing and unacceptable."
The technicians created a handbook detailing exactly how the remains are to be handled, such as loading the fallen soldier on the aircraft last to ensure unloading first and requesting a private Transportation Security Administration screening for the military escort.
"The technicians wanted ownership. The group has many passionate ex-military members who re-designed the process completely on their own time," said Paul Taylor, director of line maintenance. "They took decisive action and lived up to their word."
The Fallen Soldier program has improved camaraderie between work groups, including cargo, customer service and ramp agents, and flight crews.
"Seven guys are taken from the hangar line during an arrival," Sander said. "The transition is a team effort with volunteers filling in as needed, wherever needed. We have to rely on each other and involve other employees for this process to be successful."
The volunteers are continuing to enhance the program. Technicians built a mock casket so employees can simulate an arrival and departure in the hangar for training. Neon safety vests with the "Fallen Soldier" emblem spread awareness and put a spotlight on the program. A baggage cart was refurbished with carpet and includes a retractable American flag curtain with plaques representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
"The men and women of our military provide our daily national security. Small actions can go a long way," Sander said.
The technicians have set their sights on widening the Fallen Soldier program beyond Seattle.
"This process needs to reach all the airports we serve. Training at our other sites would spread a deeper respect for all the fallen soldiers of our armed forces," technician Bowden said.
Note to media: Photos accompanying this story can be downloaded from Alaska Airlines' online image gallery at http://bit.ly/9qVv. Photo caption information: Alaska Airlines employees Tony Sander and Brian Bowden display the baggage cart they designed for the Fallen Soldier program. Neon safety vests with the "Fallen Soldier" emblem spread awareness and put a spotlight on the program.