Alaska Airlines: The Airline I Love To Hate And Hate To Love

If Alaska Airlines were an animal, it would be this:

Alaska-Bear

I lived in Seattle for 18 months, and during that time I grew to love Alaska Airlines. Okay, if I’m being honest I grew to love Alaska’s frequent flyer program, Mileage Plan. Not only is it exceptional for their same day standby and lack of ticket change fees, but they also have some amazing partner airlines you can redeem miles on, like Cathay Pacific and Emirates.

Seattle-3

But the airline itself is bizarre. Truly bizarre. In 2012 I wrote a post entitled “Is Alaska the weirdest airline in the US?” And I still stand by that sentiment.

I flew with Alaska from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City recently – one of the routes they started as part of their “battle in Seattle” – and figured I’d share just how odd I find the experience of flying with them to be.

Alaska Airlines 737 SeaTac Airport

Final boarding call before published boarding time

Alaska runs a pretty lean operation. Despite that, they seem to consistently start boarding about three days before departure. Screw the four hour tarmac rule — if they included the time the door is open without the plane moving, Alaska would violate it on just about every flight.

I showed up at my gate over 35 minutes before departure (boarding was supposed to start 30 minutes before departure), and they were on their final boarding call. Last and final, folks!!

Alaska-Airlines-First-Class-7

25 minutes before departure they advise all passengers to be seated so as to not delay the departure, as they’re ready for “immediate” departure.

Hurry-And-Wait

Go figure, 10 minutes later the captain comes on the PA to welcome passengers aboard, and says we’ll be underway once they refuel. So much for that rush!

And it’s not like they serve pre-departure beverages during that time. There’s bottled water, but that’s it.

Alaska-Airlines-First-Class-5

Hilariously they didn’t used to have bottled water, but I’m guessing this was intended to compete with Delta (hint: Dasani is not the way to my heart).

Oh, Alaska pilots!

Speaking of Alaska’s pilots… I don’t think any of them ever actually wanted to be pilots, skilled as they may be. I think they all wanted to be tour guides, and this was their backup plan.

Because they’ll give you the most detailed flight plan you’ll ever hear.

Oh, we’ll be flying over Long Beach, Cedar City, St. George, and Provo enroute to Salt Lake?

Wonka

Alaska first class seats

I’ve often compared flying Alaska to taking Greyhound. They have quite possibly the least technologically advanced cabins. No TVs (not even overhead), and up until a year ago they didn’t even have power ports.

Now Alaska has F-I-N-A-L-L-Y started installing power ports, which are long overdue.

The only downside is that the power boxes underneath the seats are huge, and take up a ton of room in the window seat.

Oh, and Alaska has installed new seats in first class, which are reasonably well padded. The only problem is that legroom is virtually non-existent. And if the person in front of you reclines, don’t expect to even be able to open your laptop.

Alaska-Airlines-First-Class-4

For transcons these seats really aren’t comfortable.

Service is great once airborne

Alaska does have some very good employees… quirky as they might be.

And once you’re airborne service generally ranges from average to very good

Alaska-Airlines-First-Class-3

To excellent

Alaska-Airlines-First-Class-1

And they do have great alcohol that’s specific to the Pacific Northwest, like Sun Liquor products. The hazelnut espresso vodka is beyond delicious.

Something else that’s interesting about Alaska is that they serve food in first class on virtually every flight. On this 80 minute flight they served what was described as “pasta salad.” In reality it tasted like three day old leftover baked ziti with most of the cheese missing. But hey, for this short of a flight it’s better than what just about every other airline serves.

Alaska-Airlines-First-Class-2

They really shine on short flights, because their transcon food is quite skimpy.

Bottom line

I’m not meaning to rag on Alaska, I swear (primarily because I’d rather not be beaten over the head by PNWers with recyclable batons that were made right here in the US of A — I jest). 😉

But I really like Alaska. Because they fascinate me. And they have a good frequent flyer program. And they fascinate me. Seriously.

I guess the best comparison would be that if I flew one of the other major legacies I’d feel like I’m at a chain restaurant, while when I’m on Alaska I feel like I’m at an adorable ma-and-pa roadside diner. Or something. And maybe that’s why they so successfully play off the “Seattle’s hometown airline” slogan.

Anyone else? Is it just me?

Comments

  1. Traveling out of Seattle, we take JetBlue over Alaska anytime. Just as quirky, but much more space, especially with EMS. Had to fly Alaska transcon earlier this year in economy, and won’t do it again.

    But all un-bonus spend goes on the Alaska Air card, as they do have the best redemption options for us, just not on Alaska flights.

  2. I would say FC service hit or miss. SEA lounge is a joke. Found more peace and quiet in the terminal last Friday. Delta has them beat by a mile there.

  3. I’m with ya. I fly them quite a bit. The digiplayers are ridiculous (heavy and get in the way-but I think they’re getting rid of them). The seats in first are hardly worth it. Row 1 has zero leg room and the seats are uncomfy. I had a “meal” going to Mexico once that consisted of one tortilla 2-3 grapes, a pineapple chunk and a tablespoon of black beans. Beans on a plane? But for all that, call them and see where they excel. Their customer service and helpfulness is amazing compared to most airlines. The are down right nice!

  4. Alaska is fascinating to me. No idea how they negotiated with their partners to be able to redeem first class seats on their partner airlines when they themselves do not offer a 3-class first class cabin!

  5. 1) I LOL’d….great article.

    2) I live in Seattle and fully admit that I am a whore for the Alaska Airlines miles program. Those miles allowed me the chance to fly first on BA and Emirates earlier this year.

    3) Glad to hear that about the power ports.

  6. My wife and I take Alaska to Hawaii from SJC quite often, and it’s clear that they’ve densified their 738 cabins; the F looks claustrophobic when passing by on the way to the back…

    Ironically, economy seating is actually pretty nice; for some reason, Alaska’s slimline Recaro seats are quite comfortable for the ~5 hour trip to Hawaii, and being AA Plat I always get the exit row, which probably has more space than the first class seats, and on AS’s 738s the arms are raisable in the exit row!

    They also have three bathrooms in economy, which is nice, and the service is great.

    I think Alaska gets its incredibly positive ratings because their economy class is generally better than the other legacies (and most low-cost carriers) moreso than their F seating.

    That said, I’ve heard the other legacies are tightening their F seating, so perhaps AS’s F is just a leading indicator.

  7. (I will say the incredibly early boarding is super-annoying, though. I guess they do this to maintain their on-time ratings and get in the airport queue as early as possible. Alas, as a FF this is a somewhat negative feature, indeed.)

  8. Ben, you nailed it. The early boarding is crazy-making every time we fly AS. Love that hazelnut espresso vodka though. And mileage plan is great. Among other things, the free stopovers on one way awards are amazing.

  9. Come on. You never lived in Seattle, despite your pretentions. A short visit to Bellevue, OK.

    As usual, you just don’t get it about Alaska – just as you never got it about the Pacific Northwest. They’re popular here because they provide good service, and their coach experience is comfortable and reasonable – if I’m going to be stuck in coach, I’d rather be on Alaska than any other airline I’ve suffered through (maybe you should come down off your high horse and fly coach once in a while to see how much better Alaska’s is compared to other domestics). The Alaska “first class” experience is irrelevant.

  10. I know food on most US airlines is not up to much, but on my last two Alaska flights (LAX-SEA) they served “French Dip” as the meal, which consisted of a bread roll and a small bowl of what seemed to be some sort of gravy.

    I’m not sure that counts as “shining” 🙂

  11. AS was a welcome addition to SLC…the extra competition has led to cheaper fares. But I choose to stay away from actually flying AS…

  12. @ Browsky — Okay… but I fail to see how their coach experience being “comfortable and reasonable” is a selling point. I’ve done coach on Alaska many times. Is it really better than coach on Virgin America and JetBlue? Really?!

  13. Alaska may not be better than other airlines when things go well, but it shines when there are delays or other problems.

    Their staff really tries to help sort things out, book alternate flights, etc.
    If things are going wrong, Alaska is the airline I want to be on.

  14. I did a quick survey for them after a flite and mentioned that nobody was available for connecting gate info as they’d said there would be … didn’t mean too much to me at the time – but hey, since they asked. I got a phone call a koupla days later apologizing and explaining. Impressive. That kind of follow up and nice contact meant something to me.

    Also, I like the pilot tour guide talks pre-flite…nice crews.

  15. haha .. now you tell me.

    Other than the early boarding, it still sounds better than United to me.

    Bottled water is a plus to me. 🙂

    -David

  16. @Browsky — I’ve flown Alaska in economy several times and found absolutely nothing remarkable about the experience. The seats, pitch, and service are comparable to that of the legacy carriers. At least with, say, Delta, you’re guaranteed to have Wi-Fi and streaming entertainment and there’s even a reasonable chance for a seatback screen. The love for AS is truly dumbfounding.

  17. Yes, the ridiculously early boarding is annoying, but is that really the best evidence of weirdness you’ve got? Alaska runs a very good operation with a very good FF program. First isn’t much, but it’s better than coach, it’s easy to get at a reasonable price differential (especially for MVPG), and it’s not like other carriers are offering something dramatically better on the vast majority of domestic routes. Being different from the big 3 doesn’t make Alaska weird, just smaller and more focused.

    And Bellevue still isn’t Seattle. 😉

  18. noticed that ALASKA has upgraded the onboard snack,less sawdust flavor and more flavorful.big upgrade

  19. @ WrightHI — Totally agree with you on all counts. Actually, don’t think I stated otherwise in my post!

  20. @Mark S. – “The love for AS is truly dumbfounding.”

    In some cases, it’s not love, it’s an irrational, all-consuming obsession.

  21. 35 minutes!? oh no no no. I’m literally on a plane I boarded 10 min before departure! That’s my M.O. Good to know.

  22. Great post Lucky. Sums it up well.

    I love Seattle and Alaska Airlines is a good and funky fit there with all that quirkiness. The comments on here were fun to read too (all but one who sounded like he/she was on their own high horse).

  23. Hey- they once waived an expensive change fee for me just because I asked nicely. That made me loyal to them, not the food, the booze, the seats or their frequent flyer program.

  24. Quote from Puget Sound Business Journal-

    While Alaska has lost some code share revenues from Delta, it has replaced 90 percent of the revenues with code shares from American Airlines, and interline agreements with others, [Andrew] Harrison said. Code share revenues were $16 million for the quarter.

    -[Harrison is Senior Vice President of planning and revenue management for Alaska Airlines]

  25. I would have to say, Alaska is quirky, but in spite of this, they are a very safe, profitable, well-run airline. In fact, I would say Alaska and Southwest are really the only two US airlines that have successfully weathered the past 30 years of industry turmoil without a bankruptcy or massive merger.

    As far as Alaska quirks, my list would include the tapestries on the bulkhead, the pilots that double as tour guides, the obsessive enforcement of keeping the fastened seatbelt sign illuminated any time there is the slightly risk of turbulence, and the in-flight magazine with tons of ads for heavy earth moving equipment. I don’t mind the early boarding, but I do find it ironic how they board early but I’d say only about half the time that boarding is completed early do they actually LEAVE early. Frequently, everyone is on board about 25 minutes prior to departure and then we just sit there while they finish fueling, or loading baggage. That said, a lot of airlines are jealous of Alaska’s on-time record and have started boarding much earlier as well. Even Southwest is boarding a lot earlier these days. So, I think Alaska started a trend here which is spreading throughout the industry.

    On the surface, Alaska’s coach product seems pretty similar to other airlines. However, they are currently installing power at every seat, which is basically done on all the 737-800s and -900s. There aren’t many airlines out there that have USB and power outlets at every seat, even in economy. Also they have streaming entertainment from a server that can be used in conjunction with your personal device. This is eventually replacing the digeplayers, although apparently some type of tablet will also be available.

    Also, the buy on board food is vastly better than most of the competition, and also much more reasonably priced. I like how you can get a hot meal for $6, whereas most airlines charge you $9-$10 for a soggy sandwich. Also, Alaska generally does an extra beverage service in coach compared to other airilnes. For example, on a transcon where other airlines will do two drink services, Alaska does three, plus usually offering a pass or two with coffee and water. The cabin presence of the flight attendants is good. The seats are decent. So, while its not luxurious, I still think their economy product beats everyone apart from jetBlue and Virgin America. And, honestly, with streaming entertainment, I think the seat back TVs on other airlines will eventually be obsolete.

  26. No one is talking about how horrible the luggage service is. Consistently they lose my luggage – even on non-stop flights. Also last summer I flew from Seattle to Mammoth Lakes & my luggage went to Kona! There’s a lot more to that story I won’t go into, but it involved Alaska being very incompetent.

  27. Could I travel with my dog is a Yorksterri..and have the paper from doctor is service dog..

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