Airline Executive Leverages Graduate Degree to Elevate his Leadership Expertise

Horizon Air’s John Hornibrook
Horizon Air’s John Hornibrook is currently finishing his Master of Science in Leadership degree at Embry-Riddle Worldwide. Photo: Alaska Airlines

When John Hornibrook, now 59, graduated from college with his Bachelor of Science in Aviation, he never imagined that more than 30 years later he’d earn a master’s degree in Leadership from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Hornibrook’s career began as a flight instructor who became a pilot for Alaska Air. He worked his way up the ranks within the airline, eventually becoming managing director of line flying and system chief pilot. He landed at Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, in 2017 as the vice president of flight operations.

“When I became the Managing Director and System Chief Pilot for Alaska Airlines, I quickly realized most of the people I work with had a master’s degree and had graduated from college within the past 10 years,” shared Hornibrook. “I work with people of all ages, and in order to compete, I needed to go back to school.” 

Only three months away from completing his Master of Science in Leadership, Hornibrook finds that his graduate courses have expanded his horizons in ways he didn’t realize were possible.

He has applied his coursework to virtually every aspect of his role. Critical thinking is one of the fundamental concepts he developed over the last three years, and one he uses every day.

“I have a diverse team,” explained Hornibrook. “From employees with a master’s in aerospace engineering and military veterans to finance employees and project managers, everyone has a very different background, but we are all working toward the same goal.”

Through the leadership curriculum, Hornibrook has learned how to develop high-performing teams and look past his own biases to objectively evaluate new ideas. 

Taking the Organizational Development course one year into his commission to help rebuild Horizon Air, he also found opportunities to apply these concepts on the job.

“Organizational Development illustrated how to transform a company through culture,” he shared. “This was a really important class that came at the perfect time in my career and is something that I utilize still today.”

During his Embry-Riddle experience, Hornibrook benefited most from his interactions with his professors.

“I’ve probably spoken on the phone with every single professor I’ve had,” said Hornibrook. “They are all really great and involved. It is a real partnership, and talking with them made my life so much better.”

When Horizon Air had an incident that ended in national news coverage, one of his professors reached out right away.

“Between phone calls with professors and the communication boards with fellow students, the online program felt very similar to communications at the office,” explained Hornibrook. “It really isn’t much different than emailing and calling your coworkers.”

As he approaches graduation, Hornibrook reflects on his investment in a master’s degree.

“When you have a long career, so much changes and you start to get stale. This was one of the best things I've ever done for myself. I’m really looking forward to my next challenge and for using the habits I’ve learned at Embry-Riddle to continue lifelong learning,” he said.