North Pole

Santa’s helpers at Spokane Int’l Airport? The TSA.

This weekend I was an embedded elf for the Spokane Fantasy Flight to the North Pole.

North Pole

The event, now in its 12th or 13th year, scoops up 60 disadvantaged children from the Spokane, WA area and brings them to the airport for a very real flight to a very realistic-looking “North Pole.” There, they find reindeer, an all-you-can-eat buffet of candy, gifts galore, oodles of elves and, of course, Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Nort Pole - candy

For me, the real magic took place at the security checkpoint at the Spokane International Airport.

TSA checkpoint - Spokane Airport

While ‘regular’ Saturday afternoon passengers were trying to catch their flights, the TSOs (Transportation Security Officers) on duty cheerily processed dozens of kids taking their first airplane trip and 100 or so chaperone-elves decked out in outlandish, heavily jingled-belled costumes.

TSA checkpoint - Spokane Airport

Even the enhanced pat-downs seems downright jolly .

Spokane Airport TSA

Spokane elf pat-down

Going to the North Pole as an embedded elf

Today, about 60 kids from the Spokane, Wa. area will be going on a flight to the North Pole.

Spokane Airport Fantasy Flight to North Pole

Each year, with the help of more than 100 elves and incredible amount of local and regional support, the Spokane Fantasy Flight takes about 60 kids from shelters and community programs in the Spokane area to the airport, onto an airplane and, after about a 30-minute flight, to the North Pole for a full day of magic, complete with reindeer, all the candy you can eat, a visit with Santa and, of course, piles and piles of presents.

I went along as an embedded elf last year and it was so much fun that I’ve signed up to join the elves again.

Before we can get on that flight to the North Pole, of course, we’ll have to get through the security checkpoint at the airport.

TSA sign for North Pole

And then, of course, we’ll have to make sure to find the right gate for our flight.

I’ll report back tomorrow on whether or not jingle-belled elves are subject to enhanced TSA pat-downs and, of course, I’ll let Santa know that you’ve been very, very good.

“Notes,” the embedded elf…

Embedded with the elves: North Pole Fantasy Flights


The security checkpoint at Spokane International Airport is usually a quiet, orderly place. But earlier this month “It was a mad house,” says TSA screener Julee McCully.

Carolers were crooning Christmas classics in the terminal lobby. Eighty of Santa’s elves were trying to get sixty kids from this year’s “nice” list through security for secret Alaska Airline’s Flight #1225 (get it?) to the North Pole. And alarms kept going off at the metal detector.

“It was all those jingle bells,” says McCully. “The elves had metal bells sewn onto their clothes and stuffed into these little purses that said ‘Elf Stuff.’ It was like a puzzle finding all the bells on each elf. My hands were covered in elf glitter after just the first pat-down.”

Elves? A secret flight to the North Pole? What is this, a Hallmark/Homeland Security Christmas special?  Well, yes. Sort of.

Thanks to the efforts of airline and airport employees, the TSA, sponsors, donors, and an army of  secret Santas, planeloads of seriously ill and/or disadvantaged children have been taking off for the North Pole not just from Spokane, but from Chicago, San Antonio, Phoenix, and a sleigh-load of other cities around the country as well.

What happens at the North Pole?

Embedded as an elf (that’s me on the left, Tammikins on the right),  I was able to tag along this year on the North Pole flight organized by Spokane Fantasy Flight, a non-profit group that invites area shelters and community programs to pick a group of kids who could really use “an evening of wonderment and surprise” and a huge pile of presents.

60 kids and a troop of elves set off for a 40-minute flight to the North Pole, which is actually (spoiler alert!) a decorated hangar at the airport populated with Santa and Mrs. Claus, loads of extra elves and, of course, a few reindeer.

Some might call that cheating, but as one of the other elves explained, “If you’re a little kid on your first plane ride and your ticket says North Pole, and the shades are drawn, and everyone, including the flight attendants and all the elves are saying the magic words, then who’s to say you haven’t landed at the real North Pole?”

She has a point.

This is the 12th year a flight to the North Pole has taken off from Spokane International Airport.  But it still two took months of planning meetings with the TSA, the airport and airline representatives to make sure everything went smoothly.  Horizon/Alaska Airlines customer service manager Dave Burris explained: “This is only the second year our airline has been the official North Pole carrier. United Airlines used to host these flights, but in 2008, there was a mix-up and no plane was available. Alaska Airlines stepped in at the last minute and it was such a hit with the kids and our employees that now that we have our foot in the door, we’re not going to pull it out.”

More North Pole action

Don’t worry: Alaska Airlines hasn’t put United Airlines out of the North Pole business. Not by a long shot. To find out about the North Pole flights organized by employees from United and Continental Airlines, please see the full column  Now Boarding Flight 1225 to the North Pole on MSNBC.com.


Reason to fly? Offbeat holiday celebrations

Why leave home this time of year?

To visit friends and family, of course, but also to make your way to some of the towns and cities around the country that celebrate the holidays in an unusual way.

For a column on MSNBC.com this week, I found about a dozen truly offbeat holiday celebrations, including a competition in North Pole, Alaska featuring oversized ice-sculptures,

A Christmas Tree at the Corning Museum of Glass made of 800 glass ornaments,

And a park in Oregon where the holiday lights are shaped like sea creatures instead of reindeers.

You can see the full slide show of offbeat holiday events on MSNBC.com.

Greetings from the North Pole

Spokane - North Pole

Yesterday I had the great honor of joining more than 60 kids from Spokane, Washington on a quick trip to the North Pole.

We flew, of course. On a special Alaska Airlines flight.  And for most of those kids it was their first time going to the airport, the first time flying on a plane, and of course, the first time going to the North Pole.  So Santa sent some elves to help out with some of the tricky parts, like going through security.

Spokane - north pole - security

The North Pole was a magical as you’d think (more on that later in the week) but, because I was dressed as an (undercover) elf I was able to sneak into Santa’s Flight Center and snap a few photos that offer some insight into the Christmas Eve routine.

Spokane - ELF TSA SIGN

Thanks to the folks at the Spokane Fantasy Flight for letting me ride along. Especially, Tammikins, my elf guide there on the right.

Elfves Notes and Tammikins -