Vern Alg

Image: Felipe Vargas

Motorbikes, long drives and free flights are just part of what keep aircraft interior enthusiast Vern Alg going.

As told by Vern Alg to Marisa Garcia

As the Steppenwolf song says, I was “born to be wild,” but I’m not a Harley-Davidson guy. I ride scooters and off-road bikes. Anything under 500 cc is just more fun. I bought my first scooter when I was 15 years old, and loved it ever since. I did, however, quit riding in 1984 because my then wife didn’t believe that riding was responsible – especially for the father of a young child. She wasn’t wrong.

In 1998, I decided to buy a Russian motorcycle with a sidecar anyway. Six months later, a lady hit me on the freeway, and I was in the hospital for 10 weeks. That nearly killed me. But it didn’t kill my love for bikes. The first thing I did after I got divorced was buy a scooter – I bought a gray Bajaj Chetak, an “Indian Vespa.” I put 16,000 miles on it over the span of eight years, about 12,000 of those commuting to work at Continental Airlines. I had a car, but that Chetak was a great ride. It still has a special place in my bike collection, which includes 15, with one in Vietnam and one in Peru.   

At this point, you’re probably thinking this story is going to be all about my motorcycle rides, but it’s not. It’s about what really keeps my motor running: flying. Airplanes take me from country to country, and bike to bike. Planes have kept me going all these years and they keep me going still.   

Airplanes take me from country to country, and bike to bike. Planes have kept me going all these years and they keep me going still.

In 1965, my brother told me about a job in Portland, Oregon, with West Coast Airlines, a local service carrier headquartered in Boeing Field. Without a second thought, and with little more than a sketch of a plan, I put all my worldly possessions in my red Triumph TR3 and drove from Seattle to Portland. Fortunately, I got hired.

After about 10 days in the role they told me, “You have a familiarization pass and you can go anywhere on the system.” I couldn’t believe my luck. The hot place at the time was San Francisco, so I flew down there for a long weekend. That’s when I fell in love with the airline industry. I said right then, “This is what I’m going to do with my life.”

For two years I cleaned the cabins, dumped “honey buckets” and washed airplanes outside – it was quite an experience – but at least I got to fly. And I went out of my way to spend as much time as I could in the sky. My parents lived in Seattle, and West Coast had a DC-3 route that flew from Portland to Seattle via Astoria, Hoquiam, Olympia and Tacoma Industrial Airport, which doesn’t exist anymore. Those four stops turned a 45-minute flight into a four-and-a-half-hour excursion – low and slow over some amazing beaches and landscapes, and I got to fly on a DC-3!

After that, I went into airline customer service at the airport, which was perfect for me, because I love working with people. Around that time, West Coast combined with Bonanza Air Lines and Pacific Air Lines and became Air West. Then, in 1968, it was purchased by Howard Hughes and became Hughes Airwest: the “flying banana,” the “big yellow bird.” I kept working on those yellow birds in Portland until 1973, and then I transferred to Las Vegas.

Over the years, I grew to love the cabin and all the little details that help other people love flying, too. I changed cities and changed airlines, and went from cleaning to customer service to program management, but one thing remained constant: I kept flying. Ultimately, my project management skills helped me break into the aircraft interiors sector.

I changed cities and changed airlines, and went from cleaning to customer service to program management, but one thing remained constant:  I kept flying.

The biggest and most successful project I managed was Continental’s transition to a new identity and the creation of BusinessFirst, 30 years ago. We reconfigured all the aircraft, Boeing 747s and DC-10s, at FLS Aerospace in Manchester, England, over a period of nine months.

The planes came in pretty old and tired, fitted in worn-out summer colors – oranges and reds and yellows – and they came out completely changed, revived, with a whole new interior and exterior in the new Continental identity of blues and grays.

We had the whole team over there on-site – supply chain, inspection and maintenance – to ensure that the work was completed properly. Depending on the week, there would be 10 or 15 of us all at the same hotel; we had a good time. It was a big program, a real challenge, and the coordination required was incredible, but the people involved were incredible, too. Thirty years on, we’re all still good friends. As for the new identity program, it was my real baptism into aircraft interiors.

With this new facet to my career, I found another reason to love flying: people watching. I like to fly on other airlines and see how they do things: how the flight attendants interface with the cabin, how the passengers live in the cabin, how the cabin layouts work, how airlines use lighting – all of it. One gets to understand how people experience flight, what makes them feel good and what gives them stress. I’m really in tune with that now.

If I see something that doesn’t look right, I may make a suggestion – sometimes I can be very persistent. For instance, I complained to Boeing for years about there only being one clothing hook in the lavatory because sometimes you need to hang up two things. The latest 787 has two hooks. Maybe it’s because I complained, or maybe they decided to do it on their own, but I like being able to share these insights with people who can do something about it.

It wasn’t long after retiring from Continental, in 2008, that I went to the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Long Beach and met the director and the marketer of the show. We sat down and chatted – enjoyed a couple of bottles of wine – and really clicked over a mutual love of aircraft interiors. So, they hired me, and between the show and my work judging the Crystal Cabin Award, I keep flying.

I probably fly 250,000 miles a year now, in all classes, but mostly in coach when I’m buying the tickets, because, after years of flying for free, I’ve become cheap and don’t always manage to get upgraded to business class. I’ve traveled to 58 different countries, more than half of those since I retired.    

I fly to Vietnam four times a year to teach university study skills and English conversation. Many of my students are coming to the US, Canada and Australia, and they’re working on their visa interview. I tell them stories and listen to theirs. Most of my stories are about my travels, and I encourage them to be adventurous in their travels, too.

Each time I go, the hotel keeps my motorbike in the garage. I enjoy riding through the country, feeling the rush of the fresh air, and then, I get right back to the thrill of flying. The best thing about flying to and from Vietnam is the opportunity to connect through many cities and to fly on many different airlines – including many of the low-cost carriers in Asia.

If I’m not traveling, you can usually find me in Peru. I first went down there to practice my Spanish with native speakers and the place drew me in. I now have a home in the coastal desert, which gets about half an inch of rain a year, perfect weather for riding motorcycles. But nothing beats flying. I don’t travel to escape work: I travel to embrace work. I travel for the journey as much as the destination. Bikes are great – they’re exciting – but I’m never happier than when on a plane.

“Born to Be Wild” was originally published in the 9.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.