Alaska Life

Alaskans get excited for a great airfare deal, but little compares to the 49-cent frenzy of 1979

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Black Friday, that retail spectacle and secular holiday, is rapidly approaching. Alaskans certainly are not above a shopping frenzy. And while it did not occur on Black Friday, a 1979 incident with bargain airplane tickets well illustrates the extreme steps Alaskans take when confronted with exceptional deals..

In the early days of the 20th century, commercialism and Thanksgiving were rigorously separated. As journalism historian Bonnie Brennan discovered, 11 major newspapers printed 79 Thanksgiving-themed articles in 1905. None of those articles included any promotional material. One of the surveyed papers went so far as to omit the names of hotels from a Thanksgiving question and answer column.

By the 1950s, advertisements had stealthily infiltrated the holiday. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 but was first nationally televised in 1953, with the prominent name-dropping of its titular sponsor.

For most of American history, the term “Black Friday” was heavily laden with negative connotations. Days labeled as Black Fridays included the Sept. 24, 1969, gold panic followed by a financial crisis and the Nov. 11, 1887, Haymarket Riot with at least eight dead in a labor demonstration turned violent.

There were earlier usages of Black Friday to mean the day after Thanksgiving, but the modern understanding of the phrase traces back to Philadelphia in the 1950s and early 1960s. “Black Friday” was how the Philadelphia police negatively described the post-Thanksgiving crowded stores and traffic-jammed streets. Over the next several decades, American stores strived diligently to spin the phrase, and by the late 1980s, much of the term’s darker history was forgotten.

The first printed mention of “Black Friday” in Anchorage referring to the day after Thanksgiving came much later, in a 1989 Daily News article. As documented in newspapers and books, local usage of the term increased during the 1990s before becoming commonplace in the early 2000s.

Well before the popularization of Black Friday, Western Airlines ran a marketing stunt that would feel at home today. On April 6, 1979, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) authorized the first nonstop air service between Anchorage, Los Angeles and San Francisco, which went into effect 60 days later. The decision came during a period of air travel deregulation that led to the elimination of the CAB in 1985.

Western Airlines first petitioned for a direct route between Alaska and California back in 1975. After the CAB’s 1979 ruling, Western petitioned to begin servicing that route in May. While several airlines were allowed the new route, only Western and Alaska Airlines immediately implemented an Alaska-to-California direct service.

Alaska Airlines celebrated by offering its May passengers on the route a five-gram gold ingot. Western did something different. They made their announcement in a small article buried within the May 1, 1979, Anchorage Times. There were no accompanying pictures or graphics. Instead, the article simply informed readers that Western would offer 49-cent airfares for the first flight of their new service from Anchorage to San Francisco.

Richard Ensign, Western’s senior vice president for marketing, said, “We selected 49 cents as our first-day fare in order to draw attention to the fact that we are providing the first nonstop service between the 49th State and San Francisco, home of the 49ers.”

Previously, Western’s round-trip coach fare for Anchorage to San Francisco, with a layover, cost $331, about $1,300 in 2021 dollars after accounting for inflation. For the first month of nonstop service, they offered one-way tickets for only $99, about $380 in 2021.

Of course, there were some limitations to the 49-cent offer. The traveler had to return to Alaska in no more than two days or otherwise pay for the full fare for the return leg. There was also a $6 surcharge for the applicable taxes. Finally, passengers had to buy tickets in person at a Western ticket office. No telephone orders were allowed.

But 49 cents then is only about $1.90 now. The taxed total of $6.39 is still only about $25 today. No matter the restrictions, this was a travel bargain the likes of which most people have never seen.

In Anchorage, and apart from the airport, buying Western Airlines tickets in person meant visiting their two downtown offices, which would open at 8:30 the following morning. One location was on Third Avenue, and the other was within the Hotel Captain Cook.

What followed at the two locations was two very different outcomes. People began lining up in front of both offices shortly after the Times hit the stands. They wore coats, and many carried blankets, sleeping bags, pillows and a night’s worth of drinks and food. These Anchorage residents were prepared for the night-long siege.

At the Third Avenue office, the crowd remained in peaceful solidarity through to the morning, a miniature utopia in low-40-degree weather. Their disciplined behavior largely owed itself to their leaders, known as Number One and Number Three. Number One, because he was first in line, was lawyer Mark Ellis. Number Three was Leta Furia.

Together, Number One and Number Three created an ordered list of arrivals that was maintained throughout the wait. With the sequence set in stone, the crowd alternated sleeping and watching over the rest. The next day, Ellis told the Daily News, “We did hourly calls from 6:30 last night. Then at midnight when people started getting tired, we switched to two-hour calls so people could get some sleep.” He added, “We tried to get people familiar enough with each other that they would get together, keep tempers from getting frayed and recognize the crashers.”

In fact, Ellis so devoted himself to his community that he never considered what he would do in San Francisco. “I read about it in the Times at work, went home and made a couple of sandwiches and came down here,” said Ellis. “I’ve been so busy organizing the group that I haven’t even had time to think about it.”

While the Third Avenue office crowd remained orderly, the throng at the Hotel Captain Cook was entirely something else. Picture the stately, aging hotel in your mind, only newer and less accustomed to hordes of bargain hunters. For it was indeed a horde that descended upon the hotel. They entered and packed themselves in front of the Western office. There were no leaders or clear hierarchies. Instead, they jockeyed for position, hours in advance, in front of the minimal and very flummoxed hotel staff. Soon, there were hundreds of bargain hunters inside the hotel, all far more interested in a cheap trip than the concerns of hotel management.

Staff attempted to intervene but only managed to make the situation worse at every turn. Security led the crowd outside the hotel’s Fifth Avenue entrance. However, the hotel has several other doors. Other locals, either late arrivals or sneaky members of the former crowd, entered through those doors and again formed a mass in front of the Western office. When the outside group saw the interlopers, they pressed inside.

Hotel management summoned additional staff to patrol the situation. The emboldened security herded the group into a banquet room. Once more, despite their best efforts, the situation deteriorated as another group formed up outside the office. Now there were two rival mobs and one almost riot.

A nasty rumor spread through the crowd that the hotel planned to ignore their line in favor of registered guests, a claim repeatedly denied by hotel management. An unidentified crowd member told the Daily News, “the Captain Cook staff didn’t know what the hell was going on. One person behind the desk told me they were just trying to keep order.”

Somehow, they all endured, hotel and unwanted guests alike. In all, an estimated 600 total people from both locations waited for only 123 tickets. Less than an hour after opening their doors, Western’s first nonstop flight from Anchorage to San Francisco sold out. Hugo Forest bought the first ticket at the Hotel Captain Cook. He had been waiting since 7 p.m. and hoped to see a professional soccer game in San Jose.

Western Airlines had not given the Captain Cook management advance notice of the promotion. With the additional staff and related costs, hotel profits in the short term dived into the red.

Hotel general manager Vernon Daniel was understandably hesitant to criticize a building tenant. Yet, he admitted, “Western should have accepted a bit more responsibility.” Airline spokesperson Don Rosenberger was more amused than anything else. The airline had certainly received its desired publicity for its newest nonstop route. “We were just trying to provide people with a nice weekend in San Francisco,” said Rosenberger. He added, with significantly less credibility, “I’m not sure what went wrong.”

Western Airlines is long gone. After a 1987 merger with Delta, the Western name disappeared. It has been more than 40 years since that 49-cent ticket flight. Some of the passengers have surely passed, and for the rest, the memories of that trip have likely and understandably faded. Still, we are left with the enduring lesson that Alaskans will do almost anything for a good deal.

Key sources:

“49¢ Air Fares Cause Near Chaos at Hotel.” Anchorage Daily News, May 3, 1979, 1, 10.

“Board Grants Air Routes.” Anchorage Times, April 6, 1979, 1, 2.

Bond, Casey. “Black Friday History: The Dark True Story Behind the Name.” HuffPost, November 11, 2019, huffpost.com/entry/black-friday-history-why-is-it-called-black-friday_l_5d951322e4b02911e1154386.

Brennan, Bonnie. “From Religiosity to Consumerism: Press Coverage of Thanksgiving, 1905-2005.” Journalism Studies 9, no. 1 (2008): 21-37.

Johnson, Linda A. “Writer Works Behind the Counter on Busiest Shopping Day of Year.” Anchorage Daily News, November 25, 1989, B-1, B-8.

“Western Offers Trip for 49 Cents.” Anchorage Times, May 1, 1979, 2.

Zahniser, Jim. “Hundreds Wait for 49-Cent Ride to San Francisco.” Anchorage Times, May 2, 1979, 1, 2.


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