Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Alaska Airlines' Updated Livery

N549AS at Orange County Airport. Photo: VNAFlyer
Today I got lucky and took a flight on N549AS, an Alaska Airlines (AS) Boeing 737-800 (B738) that's the first to carry the updated livery. It operated as Flight 521 from Orange County (SNA) to Seattle-Tacoma (SEA), and afterward flew to Burbank (BUR).

It's not a complete rebranding by any means, more like an evolution of the current recognizable brand. The elements to note:
  • Updated "Alaska" wordmark
  • The dark blue is now a lighter navy blue
  • The teal is replaced by a deep green
  • The Eskimo logo on the tail (sorry, "Chester" on the vertical stabilizer) loses the teal/green outline
  • The winglets (scimitars in this case) receive a swooping design, featuring the green more prominently
This is part of AS's overall rebranding strategy that's slowly being phased in.

Tail and scimitar wingtip in new livery. Photo: VNAFlyer
Inboard of scimitar wingtip in new
livery. Photo: VNAFlyer
Another Alaska 738 in the current livery. Photo: VNAFlyer

Like the new livery? Hate it? No opinion? Share your thoughts below in the comments!

Why I Love Alaska Airlines, and Why You Should Too

Author's Note: While I started VNAFlyer to blog about the airline industry in Southeast Asia, being based in the US and flying Alaska Airlines so much lead me to start ASFlyer as a companion blog for trip reports, information, and entries specific to Alaska.  If I wanted to be poetic, I could even say that my experience with Alaska "inspired" me to start this blog. 

This is the first post for ASFlyer, a more in-depth write-up that began with my post on VNAFlyer, "Why Alaska Airlines is My New Favorite Carrier."

Source: VNAFlyer
So this feels right... this blog makes more sense than a Southeast Asia airline blog writing about an airline in the Pacific Northwest, yes?

Seriously though, I fly a lot up-and-down the West Coast, and as an American Airlines (AA) elite, I end up flying Alaska Airlines (AS) since AA doesn't fly many of its own routes along the West Coast and heavily codeshares and partners with AS to fill that gap.

Fortunately for me, AS recognizes my AA Platinum (PLT) status by granting me some elite privileges, such as priority check in, security entry, boarding, and seating.  I also earn AA miles for flying on AS, both redeemable and elite qualifying.

And that's how it went for the last couple of years. I actually felt bad about how often I was flying AS but crediting all my flights to AA.  I had to glance away when AS employees started recognizing me and thanking me for being such a loyal flyer!

Source: VNAFlyer
Now I'm crediting my flights to AS's Mileage Plan (MP) program, because a) I've reached 2 million miles to earn lifetime PLT status with AA so I don't have to credit flights to AA anymore, and b) AS matched me to MVP Gold (MVPG) status, which is their equivalent to AA PLT.

As I said in my other post, I've been very happy flying AS. Don't get me wrong, I quite enjoy flying AA and the benefits as an elite there. However, AS has definitely won me over with its customer-friendly service and policies for everyone, as well as generous benefits for elites. The AA+AS partnership is a fantastic one-two knockout punch.

While it seems that AS flies under the radar for many, are definitely things that set AS apart from other carriers that may be flashier, trendier, or sometimes more bombastic.  All these things, to me, add up to an awesome carrier that everyone should consider.

Below are my highlights that, in my humble opinion, should make you at least consider booking your next flight on Alaska.

Worry-Free Booking and Pricing Policies

Alaska's ticketing, refund, and change policies, compared to other airlines, are pretty consumer friendly, especially in going beyond what's already mandated by the government.

Free 24-hour Cancellation

AS allows a free cancellation or change within 24 hours of ticket purchase, no penalty, for flights booked directly with AS. This meets the US Department of Transportation's mandate for airlines to provide either a free 24-hour cancellation or free 24-hour hold.  There are some exceptions that apply to all airlines.

No-Penalty 60-Day Change/Cancellation

A unique policy among airlines: If you are more than 60 days from your first departure, there are no penalties for cancelling or changing your flight. If you're changing your flight, you can use the entire value of your ticket towards the purchase of another. If you are canceling, AS will issue you a credit for the full amount to use on another AS ticket.

Flat $125 Fee for Changes/Cancellations

If you are less than 60 days away from your first departure, then a modest $125 change or cancellation fee applies for all non-refundable tickets; MVPGs or higher elites are exempted from the fee.

I've seen these fees go as high as $350 on other airlines.

Price Guarantee

This is another area where AS shines; it has a two-prong approach to guarantee the lowest prices.
  • If you find a lower fare on another booking site within 24 hours of purchase, you can file a claim and AS will refund you the difference.
  • After 24 hours, if at any time the price drops on alaskaair.com, you can file a claim and AS will issue a travel credit for you to use on your next flight. For anyone planning on flying AS again (and why wouldn't you?), this is as good as cash. 

    On many other airlines, they'll issue you a credit for the difference after applying the change fee, so the savings would have to be a significant amount to offset the fee.
Speaking of Guarantees: Get Your Bags in 20 Minutes or Less

When was the last time you received even a "sorry" for the time it takes to get your bags? AS guarantees that your bags will come out within 20 minutes of the aircraft door opening. If that doesn't happen, then you get a certificate for either $25 off your next flight, or 2,500 MP miles. 

In my own experience, the vast majority of flights end up with my bags coming out in under 10 minutes, which I'm not going to complain about. The few times it's taken me more than 20 minutes, AS put its money where its mouth was and the baggage agents readily coughed up the certificate.

This policy is so great that I overlook the fact that AS doesn't use priority luggage tags like AA and others. 

Embracing Technology

Alaska does a remarkable job in keeping up to date with the latest trends in travel technology. We're beyond being able to check in online and print boarding passes at home...

A Mobile App That Actually Works

Mobile technology is the bane of many airlines' existence, but AS managed to introduce an attractive user-friendly mobile app that does performs basic functions well and has some unique bells and whistles.
  • Basic functions in-app
    • booking flights
    • checking in
    • seat selection and changes
    • mobile boarding pass
  • Fancy extras
    • standby and upgrade waitlists, updated in real-time
    • food menu specific to your flight
    • notifications of earlier available flights, when you arrive at the airport
    • post-flight link to give AS feedback about your flight
    • mobile boarding passes of some partner airlines
Self-Tagging Checked Baggage 

Source: VNAFlyer
AS knows that checking in can be one of the more frustrating and time-consuming experiences in flying, especially if you're in a rush to catch your flight. To help streamline the process, it introduced Self-Tag Express in many cities, where you can just go to a kiosk at the airport to check-in, print your boarding passes, and print your own baggage tags to put on your bags to drop off, which bypasses having to stand in line to have an agent do it for you.

This is all good and well, but AS takes it one step further... you can print your bag tags at home! They print out with your boarding passes, then you fold the sheet in half twice and put it into a special sleeve that you can get from AS for free, either at an eligible airport or by mail.

It's worth noting that while it would be great to drop the bag off and run, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) initially didn't like the idea of self-tagging at all, and has allowed AS to offer self-tagging on the condition that someone still checks your identity.  Still, it does save some time, so have those IDs ready!

Some may say that this is just a way to reduce the amount of labor needed. To that, I point out that I always seem to have plenty of time on my hands the day before departure, but I'm always in a rush on the day of.  I gladly welcome the ability to shirt any tasks to the day before.

Making Your Flight Not Just Comfortable, but Enjoyable

For most passengers who fly in the main cabin, onboard comfort has a limit. Thanks to the reality and economics of the airline industry, there's really only a finite amount of legroom, recline, and width, and a limitation on food and beverages.

That said, Alaska takes the hand it's dealt and tries to make the best of it. The result is a product and service that easily rivals the offerings of other domestic carriers.

In-Flight Entertainment

In this day and age, offering in-flight Internet access is pretty standard in the US, and Alaska offers Gogo In-Flight Wi-Fi. The "arms race" for carriers is how to entertain you, passenger. To this end, AS has introduced their "Alaska Beyond" experience, a comprehensive program to improve the passenger experience overall.
Source: Alaska Airlines blog
While many carriers are installing seatback screens, AS has chosen to use the Wi-Fi already on board to stream entertainment, to your own laptop, phone, or tablet. You can also rent a tablet for $10 per flight (free for first class or top tier elites).

For the technology and engineering nerds, this has the added benefit of lowering the weight of the aircraft by not having to carry all that extra hardware and wiring, thereby saving fuel and lowering prices for everyone (you may have noticed those fancy wingtips AS has installed on their planes to improve aerodynamic efficiency as well).

While the intention is to offer pay-per-use content, AS has been offering free access for the last couple of months (slated to end March 31, but we'll see if the free access continues). And we're not talking about a limited selection of last year's movies, but first-run feature films, acclaimed TV shows, and top-chart music, as well as a deep catalog of classics and popular content.

Knowing that passengers will use their devices, AS is also undergoing a significant refurbishment of their aircraft interiors so that on almost all flights, every passenger will have a universal AC outlet and USB charger to keep their devices powered.

While most carriers will be hit-or-miss on whether you get the latest features onboard, you are almost assured that your AS flight will have wi-fi and power (just avoid the 737-400s (B734s) and -700s (B73Gs), which are not slated to be refurbished).

Airplane Food for the Soul

Let's face it: The airlines really can't afford to give anyone free meals anymore. Now that we've accepted the fact that main cabin flyers will have to pay for food, Alaska shames the competition on quality and value.

Source: VNAFlyer
Among the favorites of frequent AS flyers is the cheese & fruit platter. For just $7.50, you get:
  • 2 slices of Beecher's Flagship cheese
  • 2 slices of Tillamook's sharp cheddar
  • A small wedge of young brie from Tillamook
  • A package of olive oil and sea salt crackers
  • A few apple wedges (from Washington State, no doubt)
  • A few sprigs of grapes
  • A chocolate truffle from Seattle Chocolates
I've spent more on other airlines for things described as snack boxes but were really just salt licks and pressed sawdust. Other popular items are the cheeseburger & chips and a bowl of jambalaya, both just $7.00.  I would rate these items better than many meals in first class, and thankfully AS recently updated their policy to allow a passenger in first to opt for a main cabin item in lieu of their meal.

For adult beverages, they just serve just mass-produced beer, but also offer craft beer such as Alaskan Amber and Kona Longboard. AS's regional service by Horizon and Skywest does one better: they serve complimentary beer, typically from Pyramid or Alaskan. As for wines, they come from Walla Walla.

If you couldn't tell Alaska prides itself on items and ingredients sourced locally, as well as adopting sustainable policies. AS even makes sure the containers are recyclable or compostable.  Just watch the flight attendants when they collect the trash, and how they separate out the recycleables.

Elites Are Actually Treated Like VIPs

There's a shift at some of the largest airlines (looking at you, Delta [DL] and United [UA]) towards "high-value flyers" who fly mostly paid-for first and business class, at the expense of those who fly a lot of miles in coach and would traditionally also be considered elites.  UA's chief financial officer even went as far as opining that elites were "over-entitled." 

Not so at Alaska, where as a mid-level MVPG elite I feel very well taken care of.  I'm not the only who feels this way; JD Power and Associates also gave MP their thumbs up, grading MP #1 for customer satisfaction in their Airline Loyalty/Rewards Programs ranking

So what does this MVPG get?
  • Free space-available upgrades for myself and a companion
  • Free same-day flight changes for everyone on my itinerary
  • Free checked bags for everyone on my itinerary
  • Free drink if I'm in the main cabin
  • 100% bonus miles on all flights
  • Priority everything (check-in, security screening, boarding, seating, standby, upgrade waitlisting, etc.)
  • No change or cancellation fees
  • No telephone booking fees
  • And more.
I can only imagine what it's like to be a top-tier MVP Gold 75K elite:
  • 50K bonus miles for qualifying
  • 125% bonus miles on all flights
  • Top priority everything
  • Free tablet to use inflight
  • Nominate any person for MVP (lowest tier) status
  • 4 airport lounge passes
Even the status tiers themselves are more easily attainable compared to other airlines, which normally require 25K/50K/100K miles or points for their elite tiers. AS requires 20K/40K/75K if all the flights are on AS, or 25K/50K/90K for a mix of AS and partner flights.

Miles That are Worth Something

Alaska's partner airlines.
Airlines are universally given grief about the ability to claim award flights, but DL for several years running has been the posterchild for excessive devaluation of their miles currency in all aspects. DL's SkyMiles program is often derisively called "SkyPesos" for their low earn rates for most flyers and difficulty in finding award inventory. 

While Alaska's own presence is limited to North America, its extensive worldwide network of partners (including 5 Oneworld airlines, 5 Skyteam airlines, and Emirates) gives MP miles a global reach.

Why I like the MP program for awards:
  • One-way awards are available for half the miles
  • 1 stopover is allowed in each direction
  • No fuel surcharges on most award redemptions (naturally, British Airways tacks on hefty charges like they always do)
  • Miles can be redeemed for a discount, and these fares earn full miles (pure miles awards do not earn miles)
  • Ability to book most partner awards online
That Small Airline Attitude and Gusto

For me, it's the intangibles that really put any service provider over the top, and Alaska's corporate culture and employee morale are the best I've seen for a while. Of course there will always be hiccups here and there at any company, but AS employees are almost universally friendly, engaging, and helpful.  Of the very few times I've experienced a shortcoming, AS and its employees have been great about service recovery, and I have never gotten the "blown off" feeling.

Employees Are Empowered to Make Things Right

It's been reported that AS actually gives all their employees to make service recovery gestures, such as giving miles or discount codes as a mea culpa. This is a much more refreshing than having an employee who doesn't have any authority and instead has to "pass the buck" to a supervisor or other specialist, whose training includes various ways on how to say "no."  If any AS employee sees something go wrong with a customer, they can act, just as simple as that.

Alaska Listens

AS has a dedicated website, AlaskaListens.com, for feedback about individual flight experiences, both positive and negative.  The survey can pull your info directly with your confirmation number, so it knows which airports and flights you have feedback on.  It even allows you to direct comments to certain departments or individual employees.

Smartly, they made access to the survey available free of charge in-flight, so that you can communicate with AS without delay.  I've always had quick responses to my survey submissions.

For Twitter users, AS's official account is pretty responsive when it comes to questions and concerns, so feel free to tweet @AlaskaAir.

So What Isn't So Great, or Can Be Improved?

Like any other company, especially with airlines, nothing is perfect.  Alaska has a great operation and robust network in the Western US, but it's not for everyone.
  • Limited presence in the East. Save for a few oddball routes (e.g., Los Angeles [LAX] to Washington-National [DCA], San Diego [SAN] to Boston [BOS]), nearly every city served in the East Coast and Midwest are direct flights to either Seattle (SEA) or Portland (PDX), AS's major hubs.  Thus, AS suffers from a name-recognition problem, and many either have never heard of AS, or just think it flies to the State of Alaska.

    The reality is that most passengers flying east to west aren't flying to the Pacific Northwest, they're probably going to California and not connecting in Seattle to do it.
  • Lack of an extra-legroom section for the main cabin.  All of AS's B737s have extra legroom in the first row of the main cabin and the emergency exit rows, but the rest of the seats including those reserved for elites have a standard layout.  Book or check in too late, and you could miss out on these few precious seats.

    For comparison, AA has a Main Cabin Extra section with 3-4" more inches of legroom in the first several rows of coach, plus the exit rows.  These seats are reserved for elites, or are available to non-elites for a fee.  The extra room makes for a much more comfortable flight, and makes the prospect of missing the upgrade less dreadful.  All AS would have to do is take out one row of coach to create a similar space.
  • First class meal on Alaska: Braised
    Short Rib with mashed potatoes and
    green beans. No cod or polenta!
    Source: VNAFlyer
    Inconsistent meals in first class.  While main cabin food is great, the meals served in first class can sometimes leave much to be desired.  Frequent AS flyers dread the appearance of cod or polenta, and will often opt for a meal from coach instead (a free substitution, as mentioned above). 
All in all, nothing is too big of a deal, and I'm happy that I have a short list here!  As a disclaimer, I have no affiliation to AS other than as a passenger, so while this may sound like an "op-ad" it really isn't.

In my objective opinion, Alaska as a well-run airline. In my non-objective opinion, I really enjoy flying them and hope they never change. *knock on wood*

What's your experience been like on Alaska? Do you have an upcoming trip on AS? Let me know in the comments below!