Is Alaska the weirdest airline in the US?

There was an interesting TIME article on Thursday about how Virgin America is failing. In their short five years they’ve posted net losses of $671 million, and operating losses of $447 million. Everyone loves Virgin America and they have a clear identity, but they can’t seem to turn it into a profitable business model.

Meanwhile Alaska Airlines is turning huge profits. Now that I’m living in Seattle I’ve started flying with them, and I can’t help but notice how downright strange of an airline they are. They’re a hybrid of sorts between a legacy and low cost carrier, and to me they somewhat lack an identity, though perhaps that’s because I’m neither a native of Washington or Alaska. Then again, maybe I’m not totally crazy. After all, they are an airline based in Seattle named Alaska.

The whole Alaska experience is kind of strange. They have a reasonably nice Board Room lounge in Seattle (which a Priority Pass membership gets you access to). The problem is that it’s always overcrowded, which I can’t blame them for since they’re building a new one soon. But what I find interesting is that it’s staffed entirely by “management” employees, and they’re not allowed to help you with reservations (I assume, in part, because they’re not unionized). So if there are irregular operations you have to leave the club for help.

The other interesting thing in their club is that instead of hiring contract workers to clean up after people, it’s the same “management” people that are on clean-up duty. Again, sounds nice in theory, though they’re extremely chatty. Not necessarily in a bad way, since the employees seem to know many of the “regulars,” but it seems to result in them spending a lot more time talking than cleaning. On the plus side they do have a pancake machine.

I find the onboard experience interesting/odd as well. While they have first class, they’re easily the least comfortable seats I’ve seen on a “mainline” aircraft. The first class seats are the same as on most regional jets, and really aren’t that comfortable.

While they have wifi on many of their planes now, they don’t have power ports or personal televisions. And even though they just ordered 50 new 737s to be delivered between 2015 and 2022, they still don’t have plans to put power ports or in-flight entertainment on the planes, something that even American is doing in the meantime.

As far as their frequent flyer program goes, on one hand they have some of the best value award redemptions of any airline, like being able to travel from the US to South Africa via Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific first class for just 140,000 miles roundtrip. On the other hand they’ve done nothing but devalue their product over the past year or so, between adding fare restrictions to their elite upgrade vouchers, eliminating the 1,000 mile booking bonus for those with the Alaska Airlines Visa, making companion certificates coach-only, and trying to charge upgraded first class passengers baggage fees (before deciding against it).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if Alaska Airlines were a person, they would be…

Anyone else find them a bit quirky of an airline?

Comments

  1. Yes, because the people that work for them have brains and the authority to use them. Which means they are the airline most like what airlines used to be in the 1960’s before deregulation (for those of you old enough to remember).

    What makes AS great is that things pretty much just work and when they don’t everyone pitches in to get it fixed while apologizing for the problem. No, they aren’t perfect but when they mess up you can generally get it fixed because the people who can do that have phone numbers. And they answer them. And they talk to you treating you like a person with a genuine legitimate problem which they are there to fix.

    I had 2MM real butt miles on UA when I went over to AS but even as someone without a lick of status the difference was like emerging from the USSR and being at the counter at Nordstroms.

    I’ve never looked back.

    BTW the reason they have management people cleaning up in the Boardroom is that there isn’t much of that for them to do. AS flyers mostly know they are supposed to clean up after themselves (if you look you’ll notice the tray for your dirty glasses and dishes).

    AS is only airline where I feel I’m with friends (besides maybe Southwest) and we’re all working towards the same goal…a great trip.

    Hopefully the experience will grow on you. Think of flying AS as egalitarian America where the local shopkeeper is also a neighbor and you are getting the gist of what the airline is about.

  2. AS started out as small regional serving Alaska. Boardrooms definitely need a revamp! SFO is terrible! Seattle is worn out. Still a good airline otherwise – laid back, friendly people. Management is becoming too aggressive with devaluations though. People will leave if they keep it up. Some of the 737s have better seats, others are rock hard! Can’t understand why VX can’t make it?

  3. Southwest and Alaska Air combined is a bit like Westjet. It is all about a good and smooth travel experience.

  4. I’ve flown them out of PDX twice and the gates that I’ve flown out of are like something from a third-world country. Yet they serve tasty microbrews for free on their flights. So yeah, weird is about right.

  5. Dude, sounds like you need a bit more time in the Emerald City to figure it out…people are more laid back up there. I can’t wait until you spend a full weekend in Portland…;)

  6. This may be your weirdest post ever. Rather than calling what you don’t understand weird, learn more about it and embrace its differences.

  7. Hi Lucky,

    I’m fairly new to AS, but actually like them quite well. We’ve been flying with them between Hawaii and their west coast gateways. To me their first class is very comfortable compared with the competition on these routes. And their FC food is better than the standard Gate Gourmet fare.

    Aloha!

  8. AS makes money because they have a monopoly on Alaska traffic for which the charge a premium for.

    Lucky, it aint that hard to figure out.

  9. Have you noticed how friendly and nice the FA’s are? Have you called their desk for anything? (They are based in the US and are friendly). Have you noticed how friendly and nice people on the West Coast are yet? Drink more beer, and you will get it.

  10. Agree with other posters. AS works extremely well for a lot of people with different needs. I think you might need to understand the AS approach and culture a little better! It will come with time…

  11. I am an Alaskan born guy and grew up flying Alaska for as long as I can remember, fluctuating through general member, MVP, and MVP Gold status depending on my travel patterns, although all I hold now is “Club 49” status with a few perks for Alaska residents, the biggest of which is a free checked back for flights to/from Alaska. (Flights within Alaska already get free bags.)

    Alaska is a good airline with friendly, knowledgeable employees who generally seem like they genuinely care. As pointed out above, it seems like the closest parallel is Southwest in terms of the general vibe from most of the customer-facing employees. The unfortunate part is that Alaska used to be great, sort of the West Coast’s little secret. The quirkiness and Alaska’s identity seem to have been going downhill at a rapid rate. I only noticed this at about the time their “North of Expected” advertising campaign rolled out a few years back, but Alaska seems to have gotten started with the devaluation a little later than the major network carriers.

    Quirky, funky aspects to Alaska still exist, but it seems like Alaska’s management is putting the airline through a sort of leveling process to eliminate many of the quirks that used to make Alaska so unique. Alaska is still uniquely equipped to handle flights to/from/and within Alaska through RNP navigation, combi jets, and freighters, but a lot has been eliminated or significantly watered down to the point of being almost insignificant.

    Regardless as to how you feel about religion on planes, you have to admit that the prayer cards (printed with verses from Psalms) were a unique aspect of Alaska. The Mileage Plan Bank of America credit cards used to offer exceptional values, as did Alaska’s upgrade program, and two free bags for everyone policy, and the old AS50 award (50 percent off previously eliminated, now capped.)

    Mileage Plan offers some good values, but now Alaska is playing catch up in terms of partner bookings of one-way awards. I have several hundred thousand miles, but have been unable to used them for some recent trans-pacific travel since I needed the flexibility of booking one ways. I am not a huge fan of United, but I have been shifting more earning to Mileage Plus miles lately because of the ability to book one-ways in international premium cabins, something that isn’t possible with Mileage Plan. So instead I have all these miles in what is essentially an interest losing bank account.

    So… Alaska is what it is. It used to be more special, but it is still good if you’re in Seattle (and you don’t have much choice if you’re in Alaska.) Alaska is better than most carriers in most regards, but I fear that the identity is weakening and I hope that a name-change or total re-branding isn’t in the works.

    For what it’s worth I agree that Alaska’s F seats aren’t great, but they aren’t actually the same seats used in RJs — Alaska’s seats are definitely wider. Perhaps this will be something that Alaska corrects with the new 737-MAX order, although I won’t be holding my breath 🙂

  12. i really like their first class, seats are wide and comfortable, good service, and i like the movie players. And the lounge pancake machine is incredible.

    But i will miss the first class companion voucher. And i already did the 140k award to JNB, so probably no more Alaska for me for a while.

  13. I’m not sure of the point behind the non-union comment re: staff in Board Room. DL is non-union, and has by far the best service of legacy carriers [IMO]. I find it hard to believe anyone thinks union employees are more inclined to work hard than non-union employees.

  14. To me, the weirdest thing about flying Alaska is that the planes leave the gate on time. Indeed they are not a legacy carrier.

  15. How can you redeem AS miles for cathay pacific flights? I’m new to this but didnt think AS was a oneworld member…thanks for any help

  16. I’ve pretty much only flown AS on the SMF-OGG route that they picked up after AQ went out of business. They are the closest I think we’ll ever get to having Aloha back. Nice folks!

  17. Matt: I think the point is that Delta is almost completely non-union, where as AS Is not. And because of union contracts it limits what non Union employees can and can’t do.

  18. Very quirky. A couple other interesting quirks:
    – they are not in an alliance, but they have more one-off partners than can be counted
    – they partner with both American and delta… So you can credit flights on both carriers to the Alaska frequent flier program.
    – their highest elite tier is 75K

  19. Nobody is forcing you to fly AS from Seattle, there are pretty good hub connections from most of the major carriers. Personally I prefer AS over the competition – yes the F seats are less than optimal but no worse than the 757 and 320 seats on UA. And I have a much better shot at an upgrade from SFO and OAK as an AS MVP than I do as a 1K, and AS rez system doesn’t split me off from my wife. AS flights to Hawaii are about 1/2 the price of UA or less, and often less to Mexico too.

    Now to be fair AS limited route structure and partnerships don’t work for my international business trips, but they are great for my family vacations. I just wish they’d get rid of the digiplayers and offer WiFi outside the continental USA, as LH does.

  20. Oh and how could I leave off that wonderful Alaskan Amber, the best beer served on any US airline. You’d think the others would a get a clue from the declining market share of Bud,Miller,Coors, etc.

  21. Their 737 coach seats are actually surprising good. Wife and I recently went from Seattle to Kauai and back in coach (award travel, miles were generated from opening two of their entirely churnable credit cards). The seats were surprisingly comfortable. I was expecting to be cramped and unhappy in a domestic 737 coach seat, but the flights were quite pleasant.

    People from the east coast tend to have really weird (and wildly inaccurate) ideas of what most of the west is like (never mind their ideas of what Alaska is like…). There’s an expression you’ll hear a lot: “Anchorage is a Seattle suburb” Give it a few years, you’ll figure things out eventually.

  22. @Boraxo – I think Lucky is “forced” to fly AS since he’s an AA flyer now, having been banned from UA MileagePlus, and the AS options from SEA are presumably better and he can credit AA.

  23. Quirky yes, but in my opinion one of the best airlines around. I’ve only flown them with NWA/Delta code shares. I just wish they were in the midwest so I could make them my primary airlines. Go AK

  24. As a flight attendant of this great airline, I have to respectfully disagree with some of your observations in your article. My thoughts are mine alone and not that of my employer. I’d like to offer a deep appreciation to some of the comments that followed as a result of your writing. These sincere comments came from loyal fliers of this airline and reminded me that it’s not only Alaska employees that make this airline special, but it’s our customers we carry as well. Alaska Airlines may have lost a bit of their identity with their expansion in recent years, but I can personally attest to the fact that it’s far, far from being gone….as I can personally attest to this everyone time I go to work. The amazing spirit of Alaska Airlines is unique, quite frankly unmatched. The true essence of the airline resides in that great state of Alaska, it’s friendly, caring group of employees as well as its loyal fliers and this I am eternally grateful to be a small part of…

  25. I have kind of a love-hate relationship with AS. Living in SEA you kind of have to fly AS some of the time, as they have like 50% of the capacity, and for many folks, it is their primary or sole airline. There are some things that are better on AS (and many loyalists think it is everything) and there are things that are worse – but I agree with you that they are not like any other airline. They are a strange mix between a legacy carrier (and they have a lot legacy characteristics like hubs, flow traffic, first class, lounges, regional service) but they also have plenty of LCC characteristics, and consider airlines like WN and VX their competition.

    Lots of people will say that AS employees are much friendlier and helpful than other airlines. I don’t really agree. I think there is much more variability between individual employees at an airline than the mean experience between airlines. Most employees want to help you, but some are jaded or having a bad day, and when the company’s systems are screwed up, there’s not much they can do.

    I do like the Boardrooms – salads, soups, microbrews, friendly staff (by the way, the same management works the bar, too), though as you say they are all a bit overcrowded.

    The best thing that AS has going for you as an elite (MVPG) is no change fees, including a wallet function – so you can change flights or cancel when your plans change. That means I often book AS when I am unsure of my plans – and the path of least resistance is to keep that booking. They are also pretty good up and down the West Coast, where the flights are shorter and the upgrade chances are OK, and they have a lot of frequencies

    But there are a ton of things that I don’t like about Alaska and wish they would change. In no particular order:
    * The policy of no power jacks is crazy stupid. They have wifi, the future is going to portable entertainment, where’s the power?
    * It’s too hard to upgrade transcon and Hawaii flights – there is almost zero chance. Might as well fly UA or AA, even with a connection, becuase the UG chances and buy-ups are better, and often more flight choices
    * The First class is pretty sucky. Seat comfort is no good. No pillows or blankets at all. Though they’ve finally improved the food a bit, it is still not very good. The FAs don’t protect the F lav, so it’s always occupied, and most don’t protect the bin space. There is no pre-departure beverage other than water, and they often serve the pilots before the passengers, so it can take 45 minutes before they offer the first drinks
    * There is no economy plus. There are really on 18 good seats on the plane – two exit rows (one doesn’t recline) and the bulkhead row. Often only a middle is left. If you do SDC change these seats are usually gone. If you have long legs like I do, it can really suck on a long flight.
    * The FAs tend to disappear outside their required service. They also seem to spend a lot of time chatting among themselves.

    Did I mention they have by far the most non-stops from SEA and no change/cancel fee for elites? That’s why I keep booking them.

    The economic model must be working since they are more profitable than most and have a much higher market capitalization. Although as some have said, a lot of that may be due to low competition Alaska routes. They have been opportunistic in expanding and have built up quite some Mexico and Hawaii service from the West Coast.

    One more quirky thing about Alaska: They don’t always fare match. They seem to stick to their own pricing and revenue management and don’t offer all fares or all inventory. Sometimes they are competitive, sometimes they get a premium.

  26. You missed a few spots. Alaska will refund with no questions asked if the fare on your ticket drops. I’ve gotten a lot of money back this way over the years. MVP Golds and 75Ks don’t pay fees on tickets, except for partner award fees of $25– even AA EXP doesn’t get you the ability to same-day confirmed change at no charge, and in effect, being MVPG+ at Alaska means that it works like a combination of Southwest and a legacy airline- you can cancel tickets and keep all the travel funds, change tickets day of flight, take advantage of fare drops.

    Given that and the award program, plus the fact that AS is the airline equivalent of having type AB blood (can accept EQM from AA, AF, DL, EK, LA, KL), they’re pretty useful.

  27. “Though they’ve finally improved the food a bit, it is still not very good. The FAs don’t protect the F lav, so it’s always occupied, and most don’t protect the bin space. There is no pre-departure beverage other than water, and they often serve the pilots before the passengers, so it can take 45 minutes before they offer the first drinks
    * The FAs tend to disappear outside their required service. They also seem to spend a lot of time chatting among themselves.”
    SECONDED.

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