The State of Alaska Airlines in 2019
I write a lot about Alaska Airlines on SingleFlyer. In fact, nearly 1 in 4 posts has content related to the airline. An entire top level page is devoted to understanding the airline and the Mileage Plan loyalty program. I have been a member of their Mileage Plan program since 2000 and have flown nearly a quarter million miles on Alaska planes; 99% of which were flights paid for out of pocket as I do not fly for business.
Alaska Airlines has built a great brand loyalty in the Pacific Northwest. When Delta made a push to take over the Seattle hub, most travelers I know laughed it off. We loved our hometown airline.
In 2016, Alaska Airlines purchased Virgin America. It was marketed as “Different Works” and “More to Love”. It was a $2.6 Billion gamble to stay competitive in a consolidating world of airlines.
More than two years later, we are seeing the impact. We are just now starting to see a visual change, with the Virgin planes being repainted in Alaska branding. The insides of the Virgin planes still look nearly identical to their pre-Alaska days and are in desperate need of updating. Alaska announced a refreshed cabin coming soon, but so far we have yet to see the new cabin in the sky.
However, the more concerning, non-visual changes are becoming more and more apparent. As a publicly traded company, Alaska Airlines is responsible to the share holder. In efforts to show short terms financial gains to prove the payoff on the $2.8 Billion risk, Alaska is making decisions that hurt the brand and the airline in the long term. The airline, it should be noted, has remained profitable. Just not as profitable.
The shortcuts have come in terms of layoffs of management as well as negative changes at the customer level. These include the introduction of Saver Fares (basic economy), the elimination of the Price Guarantee, the elimination of free ticket changes, devalued award tickets, loss of domestic partnerships, and devaluation of Gold 75K Lounge benefits. These are all decisions by the airline to decrease cost or increase revenue.
There is also the increase in negative customer experience that is a byproduct to cost saving measures. I have been negatively impacted in minor ways recently. Elite status recognition has been inconsistent on my flights (chocolate, free inflight tablet on long haul flights). This is a minor problem but it sends the message that elite Mileage Plan members are not as valued.
Recently I flew back from Kona to Seattle. I was upgraded 24 hours prior to my flight to First Class due to an equipment swap from a three row First to a four row First Class. While it was nice to be upgraded, Alaska Airlines forgot to cater the plane for the four extra First Class passengers so there was not enough meals. When a company is stretched to thin, things like this are bound to happen.
A more dramatic example is from Alaska Flight 1367. The flight was scheduled to leave Boston for LAX on Saturday, January 5 at 6:25pm. After a 90 minute tarmac delay, the flight was diverted to Buffalo after an hour of flight time.
Stimulation from Abroad recalls the ordeal that included an overnight in the Buffalo airport, flight back to Boston, delays at Boston, lost luggage and overall a lack of communication and proper response from Alaska Airlines.
I am sure that some readers will accuse me of being over dramatic about the decline in Alaska Airlines. Others will argue that Alaska is still better than other domestic carriers.
My point is this:
Alaska Airlines has accumulated massive amounts of the currency of customer loyalty over the past decades. Leadership at the company has decided to burn through those reserves in order to meet short term financial goals.
Delta is a huge player just waiting to welcome customers to their ranks in Seattle. Should Alaska not change direction and reinvest in what sets them apart, I fear that they will seal their fate as another casualty in the competitive domestic airline landscape in the US.