Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Alaska Airlines Gets Better as Others Decline
March 17, 2016 -- By today's yardsticks, Alaska Airlines is the tortoise in a flying herd of hares. No lie-flat business class seats. No long-haul international routes. No seatback video monitors with live TV or movies. No new revenue-driven frequent flyer scheme.

Alaska Air hasn't gobbled up a competitor or allowed itself to be eaten by Delta Air Lines, which is building a hub at Seattle-Tacoma, Alaska's hometown airport. Staying independent, it has avoided culture clashes, employee rivalries, union battles and frustrating meltdowns when incompatible technology systems are merged. It's so old school that it recently resurrected a brilliant 1987 commercial where a passenger tries to rustle up change to use the pay toilet.

What's more, Alaska's chief executive doesn't pander to Wall Street at the expense of passengers and employees. The carrier's C-suite isn't populated by lawyers and wheeler-dealers insensitive to customer and staff loyalty. It doesn't seem obsessed with finding new cuts and imposing new fees.

Chief executive Brad Tilden, who has climbed the corporate ladder over a 24-year career, is almost beloved by workers. "I love this airline and I love our management," one reservation agent recently told me.

In fact, little has changed in the nearly three years since I last wrote about Alaska Airlines. Philosophically, operationally and emotionally, Alaska Airlines continues to work well, return record profit--and keep frequent travelers happy.

I recently flew roundtrip between San Francisco and Sea-Tac for $156 all-in. I got a leather seat with 32 inches of pitch. No drama, no trauma. Just an uneventful couple hours in the air, out of touch with the world, where I could work, relax and snooze.

Hardly surprising that on the latest monthly Transportation Department consumer complaint list against carriers, Alaska Airlines doesn't even appear among the first 15 airlines that have incensed travelers enough for them to file a gripe. But one month's stats are hardly a reliable performance indicator.

Last summer, for example, the airline was plagued by a rash of mishandled baggage and it fell to the bottom of the DOT's ratings in that category. Even Tilden's bag went astray on one flight. But the carrier pounced on the problem, although an Alaska Air spokeswoman wouldn't say how many more people were deployed, how much money was spent or what specific actions were taken. By the end of the year, Alaska had moved up several notches in the DOT report and had surpassed American Airlines in baggage-handling efficiency.

A lot of little perks make the Alaska Airlines experience notably better. On my flight to Seattle, the 737-800 had power ports thoughtfully located on the seatback of the seat in front of me, easily within eyesight. A few days later, I flew from San Francisco to Miami on American Airlines in coach and the power ports were situated below the seat cushion, out of sight and difficult to use. Besides, on American's Boeing 737-800, the seats were covered in cloth and showed plenty of signs of wear.

More importantly, the extra inch of pitch on Alaska Air's economy seat makes a huge difference for comfort and productivity. American, which once upon a time loudly boasted of "more room in coach," has 30-to 31-inch pitch on its 737s. It was impossible to fold down the tray table, fire up a full-size laptop and be productive.

This fall, Alaska is getting a premium economy service. It will have 35 inches of pitch. Meanwhile, first class seat pitch will be lengthened to 41 inches from its current 36 inches. But the airline won't retrofit its fleet with seatback video monitors. Instead, it has outfitted Toshiba tablets with audio and video programming. It distributes them free to first class passengers. Coach flyers pay $8 to $10 depending on the length of the trip.

Also coming: more new jets (about six dozen Boeing 737s) and Embraer 175s regional jets that will be operated for Alaska by SkyWest. Even the smaller EMBs will have first class and the new premium economy seats. There's also a slew of new routes, both from Sea-Tac and its secondary hub in Portland. It's even adding flights later this year at San Jose Airport in the San Francisco Bay area.

Otherwise, it's business as familiar for Alaska Airlines.

Los Angeles-based frequent flyer program authority Tim Winship gives the Alaska Mileage Plan high marks for sticking with mileage-based accruals and not hiking award prices. And while Alaska resists membership in one of the three global alliances, Winship notes that the "number of earning and reward partner airlines they have on their own (12) is unmatched by any non-alliance airline today. Mileage Plan is a great program compared with the revenue-based programs of United, American and Delta."

This column is Copyright 2016 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.