Bruce R. Kennedy, 68; Alaska Airlines leader gave up his job to do humanitarian work

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Former Alaska Airlines Chief Executive Bruce R. Kennedy, who led the company’s expansion as an international carrier before stepping down in 1991 to pursue humanitarian interests, was killed when his single-engine plane crashed in a high school parking lot in central Washington state, his wife said Friday. He was 68.

“We have every reason to believe the plane was Bruce’s Cessna 182,” his wife, Karleen Kennedy, said in a statement released by the airline.

The plane crashed and burned as the pilot attempted to land Thursday evening in Cashmere, near Wenatchee, and the pilot was dead at the scene, the Chelan County sheriff’s office said Friday.

A resident of Burien, Wash., Kennedy was on his way from Hot Springs, Mont., to visit his grandchildren in Wenatchee.


Kennedy was Alaska Airlines’ chairman and chief executive from 1979 to 1991, and continued to serve on the company’s board of directors until his death. He is credited with expanding the company’s routes into Southern California and to Mexico and Russia, and with developing Alaska’s Horizon Air subsidiary. The company is now based in Seattle and, under his leadership, annual revenue rose from $234.5 million in 1982 to $1.1 billion in 1991.

“He led Alaska on a path of significant expansion and financial stability while maintaining a strong culture of resourcefulness and integrity,” Bill Ayer, the company’s current chairman and chief executive, said in a separate statement.

After 32 years with Alaska Airlines, Kennedy left the company at age 52 to pursue humanitarian goals. He and his wife traveled to China to teach English with the Christian group Educational Services International, and after the couple volunteered with World Relief they sheltered dozens of refugee families in their home.

Kennedy tried to explain his decision to leave the business world to a Seattle Times interviewer in 1991.


“I asked myself, if I look back on my life 10 years from now and I’ve been doing the same thing, even successfully, would I not think that I had betrayed myself in some part because I had followed the course of least resistance and stayed in the same pursuit, as opposed to using that period of my life to go out and try something entirely different?”

Most surprised by Kennedy’s decision were his peers.

“I find among most people who would be in comparable corporate positions an inability to fathom what’s going through my head,” he told the Seattle Times. “I sense that they think that what I’m doing is a repudiation of the CEO vocation.”

But, he added, “I’ve never joined ‘the club.’ I don’t own a boat. I don’t have a summer house.... We deliberately stayed away from a blue-chip lifestyle.”


Kennedy served on the boards of several Christian organizations, including Crista Ministries of Shoreline, Wash., and the Idaho-based Mission Aviation Fellowship.

At the time of his death, he was chairman of the board for Quest Aircraft Co. of Sandpoint, Idaho, which makes airplanes for humanitarian routes in remote and conflicted parts of the world.

Kennedy was born in Denver in 1938, and moved with his family to Alaska when he was a teenager. He graduated from the University of Alaska in 1963 and married the former Karleen Isaacson during his Army tour as an artillery officer at Ft. Wainwright in Alaska.

He went into the real estate business, and his company acquired the nearly bankrupt air carrier in 1972.


In addition to his wife of 42 years, he is survived by son Kevin Kennedy, daughter Karin Hejmanowski, two grandchildren and two brothers.