Facing customer apprehension after dismissing the beloved Virgin America brand, Alaska Airlines turned to this dynamo to steer its Bay Area fortunes.
When Alaska Airlines announced its merger with the Bay Area-based Virgin America in April of 2016, Virgin fans gasped. Bay Area flyers had been fiercely devoted to the innovative airline, known for its purple mood lighting, high-tech amenities and quirky safety videos. Discontented fans took to travel blogs, exclaiming, “So boring! No plans to fly Alaska post-merger if Virgin disappears,” and “I think Alaska should be prepared to lose most Virgin flyers.”
One group of Virgin devotees filed a lawsuit in San Francisco to block the acquisition, claiming it would result in less competition. Even Virgin’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, weighed in, writing, “Many tears are shed today, this time over Alaska Airlines’ decision to buy and now retire Virgin America.”
If Alaska was going to have any chance of success, it needed to convince Californians that it was more than the British upstart’s dull stepsibling. So, the company hired its first Bay Area vice president, Annabel Chang, a San Franciscan who had made her name at Lyft, where she was director of the rideshare company’s public policy.
Smart move. Not only is Chang a natural at making connections and building community, she’s representative of the cosmopolitan Bay Area itself. She’s a millennial, a woman and an Asian-American. She’s a veteran of the state’s political system and its start-up culture. And her star is so ascendant she was named to the San Francisco Business Times’ 40 under 40 class of 2018.
Chang, 37, had a big task ahead of her when she joined Alaska in May of 2017. Sure, there were thousands of employees to manage. But she also had to convince Californians that Alaska was as appealing as Virgin. So she has had her team oversee focus groups to find out what Virgin fans loved most. She’s “walked the gates” at SFO, she says, asking employees how they’re doing. She’s spent countless postwork hours at YMCA or Bay Area Council events — as well as Giants and Sharks games — promoting Alaska Airlines in the community. Nearly a year and a half later, she concedes, “I’m still in a high-profile, high-scrutiny period here.”
“I think she’s handled it very well,” says Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, of which Chang is a board member. “The evidence is in the smoothness of the transition. I think if there was any question as to whether Alaska would be a real player and participant in the Bay Area community, the jury has come back on that already.” The numbers, too: 120,000 people fly Alaska in and out of the Bay Area’s three major airports every day.
Chang’s success is due, in part, to her respect for — and ability to connect with — community. For this, she credits her Southern California childhood (though she was born in Texas). As the oldest child of Taiwanese immigrants, Chang grew up surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. They lived in Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes alongside other immigrant families.
“There were Korean, South Asian and Persian families all around,” she says. “We spent a lot of time at each other’s houses. That was my life experience.”
The experience included politics.
“My family always sat at dinner and talked politics,” she says. “My parents were Taiwanese, so it was top of mind for them. In Taiwan, much of what happened in your life was impacted by politics because whoever was in power could change the course of your life.”
Those dinnertime conversations led Chang to study political science at Berkeley. Although she now appears to be the quintessential corporate employee — impeccably groomed and fond of working at a standing desk in Alaska’s Burlingame offices — she confesses, “I wanted to be a revolutionary.” When a visitor raises an eyebrow, she laughs and says, “I’m not kidding. I would come into San Francisco on the weekends and hang out at City Lights Bookstore and be a pseudo-intellectual. I wanted to change history.”
After college, Chang spent a year in Sacramento as a Jesse Unruh California State Assembly fellow and then served as a legislative staffer for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein in Washington, D.C. A stint at Washington University in St. Louis followed, making her the first person in her family to attend law school and leading her to become an assistant district attorney in San Francisco.
She joined corporate America in 2014, when she was lured to Lyft by the company’s general counsel and fellow Cal alum Kristin Sverchek. While there, Chang helped create and shape a new regulatory system for ridesharing.
“I loved start-up culture,” she says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen one day to the next, and you get endorphin kicks from accomplishing something that may have never been done before in a company, or forging a new path.”
Chang likes to note the parallels between Lyft and Alaska. Both are transportation companies. Both involve high tech. Both have undergone transformations. The possibilities excite her, especially in terms of diversity.
“As a woman in generally male-dominated fields, that’s been top of mind for me,” says Chang. “Even as a political science major in college, I was often the only person of color in my classes, which I thought was so strange in a place as diverse as Berkeley. And when I went to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., I knew every single Asian-American staffer because we were such a small group of people.”
Through these experiences, she’s realized how much her voice — and that of other women and people of color — matter.
“When you’re from an immigrant family, you don’t necessarily want to stick your neck out,” she says. “You don’t know how to navigate the system or even necessarily understand the culture or the etiquette. It took a lot of training for me to speak in a public setting.”
Growing women’s confidence is such a passion of hers that at a previous job (she won’t say which one), she conducted an experiment.
“I sent a note to our women’s employee resource group, asking them to speak up,” she says. “I almost cried at the next meeting because six or seven women stood up and started asking questions.”