By Terry Stephens
Bruce R. Kennedy, 68, died June 28, when his Cessna 182 crashed in north central Washington. He was chairman of the board for Idaho’s Quest Aircraft Co., at the time of his death, but he was more widely known in the aviation world as the Alaska Airlines CEO who turned the company around.
Kennedy was on a flight from Hot Springs, Mont., to Wenatchee, to visit his grandchildren. According to witnesses, his plane clipped a tree and crashed as it approached the small Cashmere-Dryden Airport (8S2) in Cashmere. The county coroner’s office said Kennedy apparently survived the crash but died from smoke inhalation from the resulting fire. He was pronounced dead at the scene, in the Cashmere High School parking lot.
Serving as AA’s chairman and CEO from 1979 to 1991, and still a director on the board at the time of his death, Kennedy has been credited with maintaining the airline’s independence and identity during the first decade of airline deregulation, while Western Airlines and other rivals were either declaring bankruptcy or merging with larger airlines.
On his watch, AA expanded its routes in the western United States and into Mexico and created its Horizon Air subsidiary. The airline grew from serving Seattle and 10 Alaska cities with a fleet of 11 planes, to serving 38 cities in six western states, Mexico and the Soviet Union with 60 airliners. Horizon now serves 34 cities in five western states and British Columbia with its own 50-aircraft fleet. Under Kennedy’s leadership, annual revenue rose from $234.5 million in 1982 to $1.1 billion in 1991.
A deeply religious man, Kennedy lived modestly in his Seattle home with his wife Karleen. At 52, he stepped down as AA’s CEO, after 30 years with the company, to work with Mission Aviation Fellowship. He said he wanted to move from “success to significance” in his work. He’s been MAF’s chairman since 1999, heading the nonprofit group’s efforts to provide flights for disaster relief around the world.
Before his death, he helped Quest Aircraft Co., in Sandpoint, Idaho, develop and market a tough, new “bush” plane, the Kodiak, for humanitarian and missionary work worldwide.
He and his wife traveled to China to teach English, with a Christian group, Educational Services International. They were long-time volunteers with World Relief, and had even sheltered dozens of refugee families in their home.
“While we are deeply saddened by the loss of someone we love and admire so much, we rejoice in the knowledge that Bruce is united with his Lord Jesus,” his family said in a statement. “We take comfort in the fact that he died doing something he loved.”
Survivors include his wife of 42 years, two children and two grandchildren.
“All of us at Alaska Air Group are deeply saddened by this terrible loss of a revered leader and dear friend,” said Bill Ayer, AAG’s chairman.
At Quest Aircraft, company executives called Kennedy “a great visionary, whose inspiration and dedication to Quest will be greatly missed.”