Serling, Robert J., Character & Characters: The Spirit of Alaska Airlines. Documentary Media, Seattle. 484 pages plus index. 14 pages of photographs. $29.95.

There is no doubt that the early days at Alaska Airlines were highly entertaining unless you were the guys trying to keep the creditors from repossessing the airplanes. Charlie Willis had great ideas such as Robert Service style verses recited by cabin attendants dressed in Gold Rush dance costumes while pushing a large samovar through the cabin and dispensing drinks. Passengers used to wonder when the poor cabin crew would let loose with an axe after hearing, "We set you down in Sitka town" and "You're now at, Yakutat" for the thousandth time.

Like most airlines in Alaska, it had begun as a Bush service, but unlike Wien and Reeve Aleutian, luck and some foresight turned it into a regional carrier. Both happened when Bruce Kennedy took over at the age of 33. He looked even younger and felt completely unready for the responsibility, but was among the best things to ever happen to Alaska Air. For one thing, he came in just as deregulation of the whole system was voted into law. He also took over from Ron Cosgrove, who did not have Willis's pizzazz but saved the business by straightening out the finances.

The parade of colorful but dedicated top officers at the airline continues. One was Chief Pilot Swanigan who not only brought all the pilots up to FAA standards (the complaints had been on rather technical grounds), but after hearing the pilots and crew of a plane that had been flipped on its back by a sudden wind shear had only one another to discuss a terrifying experience, insisted they have treatment, paid for by the company, of course.

To his credit, the author brings up bad decisions and bad blood between officers as well. He has obviously talked with as many still living major players as he could find. The sometimes bumpy development of Horizon Air, the small, short-hop little brother, is also gone into at length.

Serling is a good writer who obviously knows his aviation history and the peculiarities of the trade. However, although the book swells to a triumphal end with the Alaska Spirit in happy full dress, rather like the Victorian benevolent Father Christmas, events have transpired to change the whole image.

The past few years Alaska Airlines has opted to save money and lose its spirit. The baggage handlers and ramp people have been replaced by cheap out-sourcing. A pilot recently told this reviewer that when he applied for a job, fresh out of flight school, he told his boss that his wife was expecting their first baby any day. The boss told him to take as much time off as he liked; his job would be waiting. That attitude inspired loyalty and the Alaska Spirit.

Lately, he went on, the old cleaners, who went to lengths to return even lost wallets, have been replaced by cheaper workers. The other day he forgot his jacket on the plane, but it was not turned in to lost-and-found. In fact, that room was empty.

So, while all airlines are having tough times with higher costs, it seems Alaska is fast turning its culture into that of any large company. Sigh. However, for an excellent trip to a happier time, read this book.

D. L.