Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Jacqueline Drumheller: My title is Manager, Environmental Affairs, Alaska Airlines. I began my career in the environmental field in 1988 after graduating college with a degree in Biology. My first job was at a hazardous waste disposal facility. After that, I worked in environmental consulting and engineering for a few years until joining Alaska Airlines where I’ve been an environmental affairs manager since 1997.
My job at Alaska Airlines slowly evolved from an environmental compliance position to a sustainability position. I am currently the Sustainability Manager for both Alaska Airlines and our regional sister airline, Horizon Air. What that means is that I drive sustainability strategies and initiatives to make Alaska Airlines the aviation leader in environmental stewardship. I consult with our leadership on establishing our sustainability goals and projects – like recycling inflight waste, facility energy efficiency, and reducing emissions, head up and facilitate our environmental steering committee, benchmark environmental data, and develop communications around Alaska and Horizon’s environmental efforts.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
JD: Alaska Airlines’ “sustainability program” was born in 2007 when our very first employee Green Team was founded. We’ve come a long way since our “rag-tag group of greenies” from across the company joined together to “ensure company policies and practices support and advance environmental stewardship.” Our first Green Team identified seven projects that we believed were easy to achieve – “low-hanging fruit” – and then rallied our executives and management to help make them happen. We achieved success on six of the seven projects and I’m pleased to report that one of those first projects, Alaska Airlines’ inflight recycling program, is still achieving success with year-over-year improvements in our recycling collection rate.
In 2009, we completed our first Environmental Report. Our most recent report, published in September 2012, evolved considerably and incorporated social and financial aspects, as well. I’m proud to report that our sustainability goals from the last report have been adopted by the company as an official initiative, meaning they will be receiving additional resources, heightened visibility, and accountability in the coming years.
In six short years, what started as a grassroots employee effort has evolved into a corporate initiative driving measurable results towards reducing emissions and waste. Thanks to these efforts, our two airlines diverted more than 800 tons of inflight waste from landfills in 2011, including some 230 tons of aluminum. That’s enough aluminum to build three new airplanes. In addition to recycling more inflight waste, we have also reduced our carbon emissions by 31 percent per passenger mile since 2004.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
JD: When our first Green Team started, the co-chair of our team was a woman from our Marketing department. At the time, I was working in the environmental affairs department on compliance issues, and my job had become a bit stale and routine after 10+ years. I hadn’t worked in our corporate office for many years, so I wasn’t really comfortable navigating the corporate setting and creating change in the workplace. My new friend mentored me on how to “get things done” at Alaska Airlines and gave me the courage to pursue our ultimate goal of embedding environmental considerations into our business decisions. She also showed me how creating a story around our sustainability efforts can be a powerful tool for gaining acceptance and buy-in from within the company. While this person is no longer with Alaska Airlines, we are still friends and I will be forever grateful for her mentorship and wisdom.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
JD: “Just do it and things will have a way of working out.” This is what I remember my mentor telling me. I was terrified that we would propose something or begin a program and then fail miserably…but her words always gave me the confidence to push forward. My favorite advice to give is a modified version of this: “If you want to make things happen, don’t ask for permission.”
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
JD:I continue to be most proud of Alaska Airlines’ inflight recycling efforts. This program has been an enormously challenging project. At Alaska Airlines, we remove (or “deplane”) our inflight waste in about 40 cities throughout 21 states and each city has a different infrastructure and requirements for sorting and recycling.
Our flight attendants must collect our customer’s waste and recyclable materials separately during a flight in a short amount of time and in a space-constrained environment. Then our caterers have to take the waste back to their kitchens and ensure that it is deposited in the appropriate commingled recycling bins. We are especially proud of the flight attendants, who are now segregating more than 63 percent of the recyclable materials during inflight service and we give kudos to our catering department and contract flight kitchens who support our recycling goals with 100 percent participation.
No other airline that I know has such a great success story with their inflight waste. Well, except for maybe our sister carrier, Horizon Air, who has been recycling inflight waste since the late ’80s and who diverts more than 90 percent of all their recyclables… but that story is for another time. And to think it all started as grassroots efforts of earnest and passionate employees – I am so proud of them all.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
JDThe way our industry and planes are designed, we rely heavily on petroleum. Unlike the ground transportation industry, we do not currently have opportunities to operate commercial aircraft with sustainable sources of power. Our best opportunity is with sustainable aviation biofuels, which we pioneered in 2011 when we flew 75 flights using a biofuel blend. The industry has come a long way in the last few years getting acceptance around and certification on using alternative aviation fuels, but the production capacity and availability is still a long way off.
3p:Describe your perfect day.
JD: Snorkeling in Hawaii with my family, playing in the surf, followed by Mai Tais at sunset with friends, and a fresh seafood dinner… oh, and a few bites of dark chocolate covered salted caramels.
Oh, wait a minute… you want a perfect work day, right? Well, I’m an extrovert and enjoy spending time with people – so engaging people in conversations around sustainability is my favorite thing to do. I also love planning, strategizing, and colluding with others on how to move the big sustainability rock uphill. Integrating sustainability into the airline business is like solving a giant complex puzzle — and that gives me plenty of challenges to keep me excited about my job.