Chris Barnett on Business Travel
Everything's Cool at Alaska Airlines--for Now
Thursday, October 26, 2017 -- When business travelers swap airline horror stories or share tales on trips from hell, you rarely hear the words "Alaska Airlines" uttered.

On cable TV news or social media, where flight attendant and passenger dustups are becoming commonplace, Alaska Airlines staffers are never in the picture.

Even with all the hateful talk of airline mergers, the Alaska/Virgin America mash-up seems to be going smoothly so far. And while the names of airline chief executives are epithets spit out by unhappy flyers, who can even name Bradley Tilden, Alaska Airlines' low-profile boss?

It's uncanny, but Alaska Airlines keeps chugging along and pleasing passengers--despite a hostile stock market, which has the carrier's stock trading near a 52-week low after yesterday's 2-cent earnings miss. Its coach class still mostly offers just a little more legroom than the other guys. The frequent flyer program is still mileage-based, relatively rich for both earning and burning and still generous with elite-level upgrades. And maybe I've just been lucky, but Alaska Airlines' pricing seems more enticing lately, too.

I just purchased a San Francisco-Chicago/O'Hare roundtrip for $180 during a pop-up fare sale. Last month, I snagged a roundtrip from San Francisco to Seattle for $234 roundtrip. The two-hour flights on both legs, during morning and evening rush hour times, went so smoothly and effortlessly that it felt more like a mini-vacay getaway than an airborne root canal.

What's the secret sauce? I'm generalizing, of course, but no one on Alaska Airlines--from ground staff to cabin crews and even passengers--ever seems to be in a frantic, drama-trauma hurry. Rudeness is rare.

I'm not sure if that perception holds up systemwide because Alaska Airlines is growing fast. Including the Virgin America routes, Alaska Airlines now links 118 cities across the United States. Its 1,200 daily flights extend into Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and Cuba. It's certainly not a regional airline based in Seattle anymore and is the sixth-largest U.S. airline based on passenger traffic.

Alaska Airlines has been on an expansionary tear this year, fueled mainly by, but not limited to, the Virgin America merger. More than a dozen new cities, including Nashville and Raleigh/Durham, have joined the network. In California, where it now operates from 16 airports, Alaska Airlines has beefed up frequencies at Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego.

Burgeoning route map and passenger numbers aside, it's still the ground and in-flight experience that's a differentiator for me. Checking in at San Francisco on the outbound flight to Sea-Tac, Alaska Airlines' hometown major hub, was fast and friendly. Boarding was swift, not tortured with 15 different categories of passengers getting varying degrees of preference.

On the return flight from Sea-Tac, check-in lines were long and moved slowly because rookie agents were being trained. I was flying coach, but when I went to a counter reserved for first class passengers and asked for help, I was greeted with a smile. "Of course, I can help you and I'll get you right through and on your way," was the response. To me, that's five-star customer service.

It will be interesting to see how Alaska Airlines and Virgin America actually combine their cultures. Edgy Virgin always had a bit more ostentatious flair, from its soothing cabin mood lighting and cool seatback entertainment system to kitschy music video-style safety announcements. Alaska Airlines has been more sober in its approach. We'll know more about that come April 25, when Alaska extinguishes the Virgin America name and both carriers operate as a single unit.

Right now, it's catch-up time. Earlier this year, Alaska Air debuted Premium Class (left). It offers four more inches of legroom plus a gratis snack and alcoholic drinks. Alaska Airlines has decided to operate with a first class cabin that has plenty of perks, but just 41 inches of seat pitch. While that's more than its big domestic rivals on most routes, it is substantially less than Virgin America (55 inches) offers. And Alaska Air has decided not to add lie-flat beds on its transcontinental routes, which will put it behind its legacy competitors and JetBlue Airways. Alaska Air says it is betting that business travelers want more complimentary upgrades, not more beds.

An Alaska Air spokesperson says the carrier won't be adding seatback video entertainment systems to its Boeing 737s or E175s to match Virgin America's fleet of Airbus A320 and A321s. For now, Alaska Air will stick with giving passengers free video entertainment to stream on their own devices. Alaska Air does say the two carriers will go with a combined satellite-based WiFi system that will roll out next fall. And Alaska Airlines already gives all passengers free messaging, something larger carriers are just now getting around to offer.

To its credit, Alaska Air also will continue its mileage-based frequent flyer program and not devalue by going to the revenue-based system adopted by its competitors. And while it has killed its Delta partnership and severed most of its frequent flyer deal with American Airlines, it is retaining the Switzerland Strategy of cooperating with a wide range of international carriers.

But the question remains: How will the full, final consolidation of Alaska Air and Virgin America's operations, computer systems and luggage handling function? The delicate and dangerous ballet can cause immediate grief to all passengers, particularly business travelers who have no time for snafus. Next April could be a turning point for Alaska Airlines, which so far has avoided much criticism for its handling of the Virgin America purchase.

Also an issue to watch: How will Alaska mix the Virgin fleet of Airbus aircraft into its all-Boeing operation? This could cause real confusion for both passenger groups. Stay tuned.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Chris Barnett. is Copyright 2017 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.