Why Don’t People Hate Alaska Airlines?

On the surface, Alaska Airlines seems like a company that Americans would love to hate, yet exactly the opposite is true. People love Alaska, and it’s no accident. Let me explain.

Think about everything going against the airline. First of all, it’s an airline. Hating every move an airline makes is actually Alaska Airlines Loverequired in the US in order to graduate from high school. If, however, you build a brand as a low fare airline that eschews fees like Southwest, then you get a pass. Alaska is not that airline. Alaska looks more like a traditional hub-and-spoke airline. You’ll pay to check bags and fares aren’t rock bottom. Want inflight entertainment on a long haul? That’ll be $14. How about food? You’ll pay for that as well.

Last quarter, Alaska had an epic meltdown when its computer system failed and thousands were stuck. As if that’s not enough, Alaska is posting record profits. In the first quarter, Alaska had an operating profit of nearly $134 million. Its operating margin was nearly 14 percent. That’s a rock star result.

Were any other airline making that kind of money, people would be screaming bloody murder. Employees would be clamoring for fair treatment and better pay while customers would demand that the “outrageous” fees go away. But that’s not what’s happening here. And here’s why.

1) Alaska is Small
The bigger the company, the bigger the target it is. Think about oil companies. People love to jump on ExxonMobil and BP, but how many people hate, say, Sinclair Oil? Nobody. Well, I’m sure someone does, but it’s not vilified on a daily basis. Sinclair has gas stations in 21 states, so it’s certainly a visible name, but it’s not in the cross hairs when people think of big, bad oil. Being small also means that earnings don’t look so huge. Sure, Alaska had a great margin but its operating profit was only $134 million. Had United achieved a similar operating margin, it’s operating profit would have $1 billion. That just sound enormous.

2) Alaska’s Fees Seem “Fair”
It helps when other airlines set the bar for what the public considers to be greedy. It means if you do something below that level, you look like a hero. The big legacy airlines charge $150 to change a ticket. Alaska charges half that for changes made online. If you want to check a bag on Alaska, it’ll be $20 for each bag up to three. That may not seem that much cheaper than other airlines, but it comes with a promise. If your bag isn’t on the carousel within 20 minutes, you get compensation.

3) Alaska Operates Out of the Spotlight
Being based in Seattle means that people don’t really pay attention to you. Oh sure, the local papers will jump on stories when things go wrong, but you’re not likely to end up on the national news unless you really mess something up in a huge city like LA, New York, or Washington DC. Being in the Northwest insulates Alaska nationally, both when things are good and when they’re bad so it’s a mixed blessing.

4) Alaska’s Mileage Program is Flexible
Loyalists to Alaska’s Mileage Plan program are VERY loyal. There are so many mileage partners around the globe that members can use their miles to go just about anywhere. Those with MVP elite status get the same kind of benefits as other airlines give but with a lower mileage qualification threshold. (It’s only 20,000 miles to become MVP.) The program is also integrated with Delta SkyMiles to the point where elite members get priority boarding, better seating, and more. So it’s a program that can compete with the big guys and even provide better benefits by partnering across alliances.

5) Alaska Runs a Good Operation
For the twelve months ending February 2011, Alaska was second in on-time performance with 87.2 percent arriving within 15 minutes of schedule. There’s no question that the airline is helped by not flying much in horrible east coast congestion, but that’s not the point. Running on time means that there’s less for people to complain about. It doesn’t matter why you run on time. It just matters that you do.

6) Alaska Understands Customer Service
One of the most important reasons that people don’t hate Alaska is because when things go wrong, the airline is all over it. When computers failed, Alaska was pumping updates out constantly. Execs filmed a video apology and gave details on what happened. Alaska also encouraged everyone impacted to write in so that the airline could deal with compensation individually. It was an excellent effort all around and certainly reduced the negative impact that might have been felt by others in a similar situation.

I’m sure there are more reasons, and I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts. I should make it clear that this doesn’t mean Alaska has a sparklingly perfect record. This is the same airline that in 2000 had one of its MD-80s crash off the coast of California. The resulting scrutiny over the airline’s maintenance created a ton of bad press and without question damaged the brand significantly. Alaska also took a hit after it laid off its 500 ramp workers in Seattle and outsourced the work to a third party. (It was later determined Alaska actually violated the union contract.) For these reasons, some people will always hate Alaska and I can’t blame them. But those people are in the minority today, and Alaska finds itself in one of the most enviable positions in the industry when it comes to customer perception.

113 Responses to Why Don’t People Hate Alaska Airlines?

  1. Okay, one final random comment, I just noted that the 738 and 739 come in a 4 and a 5 lavatory version. Anyone know the reason why they’ve got both of these configurations?

    • Stephaniea says:

      None of our fleet have 5 lavatories. 3 or 4 depending on size of the airplane.

      • Oops, I miscounted 3 or 4. But the -800 / -900 are both the same size plane, so I’m still curious why they’ve got both of these configurations?

        • Chris says:

          may have to do with where the planes will be primarily deployed. You could get buy with two lavs between SEA-ANC or SEA-LAS. But for ANC-HNL, ANC-ORD, or any transcontinental flight, you’ll want the convenience of the additional convenience.

  2. alaska’s airfares has no real competition in state and on the seattle / hawaii run and charges accordingly in short the rate per mi flown compared to same outside is criminal.

    • David M says:

      Hawaiian and Delta don’t count as “real competition” on the Seattle-Hawaii flights? Both even fly planes significantly bigger than Alaska’s (767-300 and 757-300, respectively, compared to the 737-800).

  3. I was one of the travellers who was stuck in the middle of the “computer mishap.” We had two children travelling on that flight and I had drove 200 miles into Anchorage only to find that en route our flight was canceled and we would be stuck in Anchorage until the next day. To date, I have written one certified letter and sent two emails to their customer care department and received no response. I certainly don’t consider that an excellent effort by any means. We have used AK Air exclusively for the past ten years to fly our children between here and the lower 48 multiple times per year. Sorry, a video apology just doesn’t cut it. Their choice to do nothing is utterly pathetic.

    • Chris says:

      I don’t get your description of “choice to do nothing.” I also got caught up in the mishap. I ended up paying for a night in a hotel in San Jose, and getting on a flight waaay too early the next morning. That day I sent a request to Alaska asking for a $100 travel credit to cover the cost of my hotel. Since they were responding on a case by case basis I didn’t expect to hear from them immediately, but within 10 days I had an email which included a $300 travel credit for me, and $300 for my sister who was traveling with me. That’s damn fine customer service considering what I asked for. In addition, I was also refunded the cost of my hotel with a check in the exact amount of the bill.
      How anyone could describe this as “Nothing” is utterly pathetic.

      • Foo says:

        He wasn’t describing YOUR experience, d-bag. He was saying that Alaska did no such compensation for him — which is a perfectly reasonable complaint. The fact that Alaska can have failures and do absolutely nothing for some people, b/c they just don’t have a system in place for failures, is what’s pathetic. He clearly stated that he contacted them several times, and you have to attack him personally as being pathetic, just because you managed to win the lottery of Alaska actually responding to you? Seriously, you are a total piece of human garbage.

  4. M Crudell says:

    I booked a first class roundtrip ticket to Maui. My departure date was sold out and so I booked a day earlier and called the airline to waitlist me for the next day. Alaska Airlines said they could not waitlist me because if I showed up for the next day, then my reseveration would be cancelled. I asked why they could not call me when the waitlist cleared. They do not offer such service. Then I asked when do you waitlist and they said for frequent flyers who want to upgrade and I would have to call back everyday to see if a first class seat became available.

    So Alaska Airlines can waitlist a customer who is upgrading but can’t upgrade a full fare firts class customer. Illogical. Also, they want me to call everyday to check availability. Each call costs the airline money. Illogical. Makes more sense to waitlist the customer and then have the airline call the customer.

    Alaska Airlines needs to learn to better support their customers and in turn reduce costs to their contact centers.

    • M Crudell, show me an airline that’ll do this? I don’t think there are any US Airlines that will, if any airline. Waitlisting is usually just for travel the day of to fly on an earlier flight, or on the same flight to upgrade from coach to first for frequent fliers.

  5. Tina says:

    We have been loyal to Alaska for a few reasons… first and FOREMOST; we travel a lot, and with our daughter, when we started flying with her as a baby we tried 3 other airlines during our travels and when they saw my daughter they turned up their nose’s and treated us like she was the plague. Since she has been flying a few times a year since she was 3months she is REALLY used to being in the air, she watches a movie the whole time or sleeps and no one knows she is there, she’s a pro. But how SHE is treated is important to me and Alaska has ALWAYS greeted us with smiles and talked to her, helped out with hot water when we needed, made sure she had juice or water for take-off and landing. NEVER acting put off by her, or that she was a bother, in fact have praised HER for her great manners and attitude and that is special to her.

    Also, the milage plan is easy and even if we don’t have enough for free flights we do for discount flights, also get $99companion flights with the Alaska Visa.

    Lastly, we travel to california a lot and Disneyworld every couple of year. NON-STOP. Thats worth a couple extra bucks especially if you are doin a red-eye. Between milage, companiion and cash it will only $600 roundtrip, non-stop to Orlando in November.

    Oh and did I mention the leg room, seems to be a little better to me.

    • Tina says:

      That would be for 3 by the way

    • Cruise2Much says:

      Tina, Sounds like you an I have experienced the same extraordinary service as we have. We also travel with our son, a 19 year old special needs boy. Working in the travel sector, we fly way more then most and have always found the level of service and compassion at Alaska Airlines to be a notch above all others. And it’s a pretty significantly sized notch too.

      Alaska Airlines, to use the old cliche, “sets the bar for excellence” and they set it very high. Sure there are times when things just don’t go the way we hoped, but that’s life. With years of flying in and out of Alaska, up and down the west coast and now in and out of my wife’s home town of Denver CO. I can and will proudly say that Alaska Air has been there for us in many situations uncharacteristic of a normal passengers needs. Best of all, they do so willingly, with caring and compassionate employees that really know how to make a family feel special.
      I am back on Alaska Airlines this Tuesday bound from Anchorage to Seattle and I am looking forward to the flight.

  6. Mar says:

    Oh goodness, the leg room. I’m a leggy sort of person, and my last flight on Hawaiian had my knees right up against the next seat. Never had that problem with Alaska.

  7. tomk says:

    Somewhere in the background are good memories of the airline that Cosgrave and Kennedy put together …one that served Alaskans well for these many years. Any negative experiences have been minor compared to those encountered with other domestic and foreign airlines.

    Rates, arrival/departure problems…etc. will always be part of the equation… but I will always remember what this State had before AKAIR turned national and be thankfull for their flying our skies.

  8. Karl says:

    There’s nothing fair about charging $75 to cancel a mileage flight online over a month prior to departure date.

    • Randy says:

      The fee to cancel a mileage ticket and redeposit the miles (I’m assuming the latter,) is to discourage people from making multiple frequent flyer reservations and tying up inventory. Given the frequent scarcity of frequent flyer seats at desirable periods, it keeps someone from booking three Saturdays mornings in a row to say Hawaii, eleven months out, and then canceling two of them a month out when the right weekend becomes apparent.

      • Karl says:

        I understand that reasoning, but surely in this age of sophisticated computer programming, someone could figure out how to cull out those who have only made one res and then cancelled it, especially since it’s the only time I’ve done it in the past 20 years.

  9. Mike says:

    I dropped AkAir many years ago. By dropped, I mean I don’t use their mileage plan anymore. For one reason I hate Bank of America (But that’s another story) & they are the bank that offers the AK Air Visa. The main reason is Alaska now makes it nearly impossible to go anywhere for the advertised quantity of miles required. They always want more , sometimes double. Even many months in advance. That in turn makes AkAir miles worthless to me. A few years ago I switched to American & do not have that problem anymore. Also, you can get an AMEX,Visa & Mastercard through them. Now all my purchases from Costco & Sams Club get me airmiles. Sure they put me on AKAIR flights to & from Alaska But it is funny how American has seats available on the same AKAIR flights for the regular mileage cost & AlaskaAir does not. Alaska Air is last on my list for a decent airlines.

  10. joe says:

    There are pros and cons but I fly Ak air a lot, on the pro: it’s a quality airline with good pilots and glad they have regular service in rural AK but they are also a monopoly. They raise the prices in rural Alaska so much and we have no other reasonable option to get to Anchorage. It costs $500+ r/t to get to Anchorage direct from Kotz, Bethel, Barrow or Nome. Their customer service also is not what it used to be.

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  12. KK says:

    Why do I like Alaska Airlines? The most recent example was when I was leaving San Diego heading home for Anchorage, TSA discovered I had left my $80 Leatherman in my carry-on and gave me the “option” of disposing of it. I went back to the Alaska check-in counter and the agent arranged to have the ramp staff find my checked bag and send it to the baggage claim area where I was able to put the Leatherman away and re-check the bag. Their baggage, ticket change and cancelation fees annoy me, but I appreciate Alaska’s let’s-get-it-done frontier spirit.

  13. Carole says:

    I have flown with Alaska Airlines since day one.. I remember the great service on the plane, where it counts. They go out of the way to make you comfortable. Such as when we were traveling to medical services in the lower 48 and had to transfer from Delta to Alaska at the last moment, because of Delta mechanical, their staff treated us so special with their words and their deeds. Once traveling back from Juneau and an engine conked out their stews acted calm and gracious setting up the emergency landing procedure in Anc. Making us feel safe. Landing in Honolulu once I was so proud that the first class stew was a beautiful Alaskan native lady and the pilot was Eskimo from my hometown. I hugged them both and told them how proud I was of them.I have many stories like that over the years and some not so nice stories of flying on other airlines. I love the Eskimo face on the plane. I had the privilege of knowing Chester Sevik who everyone believed was the model for the famous emblem. PLEASE don’t ever change that. also the hawaiian flowers on some jets now that they fly to Hawaii. Also get a THRILL when I see the king Salmon plane. They are ALASKA! They sell Alaska! Alaska is HOT right now..The place to hear about and to visit. Alaska Airlines helps keep it that way along with the TV shows going on..Ie Sarah Palins Alaska, Alaska State Troopers, Into the Wild, Deadliest Catch etc.They are good for business. Now as far as fares go. They show me that they are good business people because they make sure they are NOT operating in the red and yet have taken good care of their retired employees. Two of them are our good friends. I remember the hard years when MARK AIR tried their best to do them in because of Neil Bergs personal vendetta which backfired on him. They have weathered a few storms and come thru a little scratched but OK. They have my continued loyalty!

  14. gt says:

    I spent many hours online or on the phone this January trying to iron out details for an Alaska Air vacation plan package to Cabo. We couldn’t use our mileage plan. They said they didn’t interface with the hotel for room requests. The website couldn’t tell us which of three cities we would arrive at for an overnight on the way back until we bought the tickets. The customer service rep on the phone wanted to charge us to book a specific city. And the vacation plan people didn’t work on weekends! We were disappointed, to say the least. Yes, the flight attendants were nice, but I’m a longtime Southwest flier, and I know what good service is.

  15. Alaska just started a special promotion for people who live in certain Northern California zip codes. Join their mileage program and fly between Northern California and Hawaii before October 1st and you will get 25,000 bonus miles which is enough for a free trip.

    Sounds like they are needing to push their bay area to Hawaii flights and think this will get people on the flights. People around here are to used to United to Hawaii to think about an airline called ‘Alaska’ to fly to the islands.

    Think about it, who would you call for flights to Hawaii from around here, United who has flown for decades or an airline called ‘Hawaiian’.

    This might be a good question, is Alaska’s name hurting them once they get out of the state of Alaska or out of the Pacific Northwest/West Coast?

    • Casey says:

      I guess if you judge a book by the cover or do as you always have then you will never travel on Alaska. If, on the other hand, you like to be treated well then come ride with us some time. Having worked here for twenty six years as a pilot I can tell you that we have the best Flight Attendants in the country, the best maintenance and our pilots have been leading the industry for some time now. Climb on out of that rut you are in and give us a try, you won’t be disappointed.

    • Hi David:
      Hawaiian flies the proper equipment to Hawaii.
      You don’t see them making fuel stops in Oakland or Portland like Alaska does.

      • EA CO AS says:

        You know perfectly well the tech stops seldom occur – typically only a handful of times during particularly harsh jetstream conditions in the winter. Bottom line is the market shows Alaska is absolutely using the right equipment, as they’re making money hand over fist to Hawaii and people love their service.

  16. Sonia says:

    Alaska Airlines: Did you Really Have to call the Police because I threatened to Twitter Poor Customer Service?

    Another airlines customer service nightmare unfolded last night as several Alaska Airlines customers’ reported lost baggage and one reported stolen jewelry from their checked luggage. One of the customers mentioned that they were going post their experience on social media networks.

    While resolving the baggage concerns of the numerous upset customers, police were dispatched due to security threat …what wasn’t conveyed to the police is that the threat was purely the use of the power of online media. After clarification about the situation, police let the passenger leave the airport without further incident (without their baggage) and shared a good laugh about the travesty occurring to passengers in today’s airlines industry.

    “Frankly, if there was a crime committed.. one would think it would be Alaska Airlines, as this is the second time that I paid for a baggage handling fee and did not receive the service paid, did not receive a refund (only a $20 future credit on next trip with Alaska) and I still do not have my baggage.” “If a consumer pays for something and doesn’t receive service/product isn’t that theft? Who really committed a crime in this situation?”

    The irony of this story is that I was just returning from attending the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston where we learned about the impacts of Social media to the enterprise. One of the better keynotes at the conference talked about “Serve Customer 2.0 well or Perish”. The speech described how a new kind of customer that is tech savvy and knows their way around social media and are happy to widely communicate about their positive and negative customer experiences. In fact, one of the examples noted was the airlines industry… and how negative social media has impact stock value with contrast on how great companies such as Zappos uses web media to engage and foster long term relationships with customers.

    As there continues to be much news around the airlines industry and the poor customer experiences, we are witnessing a new era unfolding as customers take back their voice and force companies to serve them better. See links below to other articles where other passengers have used the power of social media that has significantly impacting corporate brands and in some instances stock value:

    1. United Airlines Break Guitars: In this case a single YouTube video complaint about a bad experience with United Airlines has contributed towards United Airlines share price dropping by 10% and costing shareholders a reported $180 million! “Meanwhile, within four days of the song going online, the gathering thunderclouds of bad PR caused United Airlines’ stock price to suffer a mid-flight stall, and it plunged by 10 per cent, costing shareholders $180 million. Which, incidentally, would have bought Carroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.”

    Here’s the video, titled “United Breaks Guitars” by Dave Carroll – so far having an incredible viral effect with over 9 millions views: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo

    2. Movie Director Kevin Smith’s reaction to being removed from a Southwest Airlines flight for taking up too much room. Kevin has 1.6 million twitter followers and not the kind of guy you want to have talking negatively about your company. http://twitter.com/#!/ThatKevinSmith/status/9079110598 http://twitter.com/#!/ThatKevinSmith/status/9081211151

    I guess this is just inspiration for the business traveler and our YES OUR VOICE CAN BE HEARD!

  17. Noch says:

    I’m from Seattle, and I fly Alaska Air almost weekly. I was not aware that ANYONE liked Alaska Airlines.

  18. I used to travel Alaska Airlines a lot and now only do I look at them when I do LAX to Sea….which is about 3 times a year. The attendants are nice and listen well and and are in a great mood usuallly. They are very good at mishaps. However, when I look at LAX to Boise, Seattle and DC they are NOT AT ALL cost sustainable like they were 2 years ago. They ended non-stop to Boise, to DC, they are regularly 2 and 3 times the fair for the same ticket!! I would sell stock very soon if I had stock since I think it’s overprice as is their product. I can get the same service from USAirways or SW.

  19. Ryan says:

    I think this is a pretty accurate article. I live in Seattle and I’ve had MVP status on Alaska for the past 3 years. The main reason i keep the status is for flights on the west coast where there is not much non-stop competition (PDX, SJC, OAK, SAT, PDX), and the FF program is not to be beat at the 20k level. They are okay, but ..
    – Seating seems very tight, esp on the new 737-900ER’s, and there is no plus/comfort seating. Even as a Silver Elite on UA/CO I never had a problem getting an economy/plus seat day-of flight. As a “big/tall guy”, I find it very uncomfortable to be on a coast-coast Alaska flight, but hardly ever complain on United, and I can even be productive on my laptop!.
    – Flight attendants on Alaska have a horrible habit/policy (that I’ve not seen on any other airlines) of making you put away your electronic devices 45 minutes before landing, vs. the 20-25 minutes on other airlines. Hopefully though, the days of not being able to use read on a ebook reader until touchdown are coming to a close.
    – It seems that on-time performance is exceptionally good out of SEA, PDX, … most of the west coast except maybe LAX and SFO. It might not be fair to give Alaska too much credit for that.

    One great thing about Alaska is their price guarantee. I’ve had several $20-$75 refunds in the past year, that amounted to 10-25% of the ticket price. It’s nice to just buy the ticket, add an alert on yapta and worry less that you bought at the wrong time.

    But in the whole scheme of things, and having flown 100+k miles for each of the past 3 years, having over 150k last year and will probably have over 200k this year, I have very few complaints against the people and companies I encounter in the airline industry. I just bought a 1-stop one-way to BOS for $100.80 on United (1.5 months out for May travel) and I’ll get off at Newark for my one-way to NY (yes, I’m working the system ;). That partially makes up for the $300-$400 one-way summer fares that I’ve paid. I’m entirely confident that the airlines will bend us over the first chance they get, but at the current level of competition I see out of Seattle, I have to feel that many complaints are out-of-line and people are too sensitive. However! I do have sympathy for people that are not near a major hub, or a hub/defunct-hub that does not have significant competition (IAH/MEM/CIN/PIT .. ?).

    Let’s not excuse airlines for their bad behavior at times, but I see many people on a typical flight that could afford to chill out. Yes, I’m stressed and had 3 hours sleep last night and need to get back on my laptop as soon as possible, but it’s not the FA’s fault that someone doesn’t understand that “wheel’s out” makes your bag fit into the overhead and avoids having to set it sideways and take up the whole compartment, that people on a plane can’t be respectful of one another and that it sucks dealing with people’s problems all the time.

    I guess my conclusion is … Alaska is fine, United is good to very Frequent flyers, Virgin America is great! to most everyone (though their loyalty perks are less for FFs). Let’s hope VA makes it, competition increases and people become less anal and more respectful on flights!

  20. Kevin says:

    BUYER BEWARE -Read the fine print. Alaska Airlines Charged me $705 for a “Direct-NON Stop” flight from Orlando to Seattle, but made a STOP in Denver? From Kory/Cory at Alaska Air NON customer service ” Read the Fine Print, we can make as many stops as we want and do not have tell you when you book your flight”
    To bad your flight was 3 hours longer than we told you! My 5.5 hour flight then turned into a 12 hour DAY/NIGHT!

  21. salty dawg says:

    I’m sorry, but I’m an Alaska Airlines hater. I’m a born and raised Alaskan who now lives in WA, and works in Alaska. I fly every month. I can’t help but think that people who like AA just don’t know better. As a kid, flying on the plane out of state was a big adventure, and having our state name on the jet was a matter of pride. But as an adult I feel gouged for terrible service, cramped in to tiny seats, and penalized for using air miles. After flying jet blue all summer I am reminded what good value, good customer service and and a comfortable flight feels like. Jet blue offered flights for 1/2 of what AA charges, free snacks and entertainment, and considerably more room. In my opinion there is no comparison. I just hope they begin flying year round. Sorry Alaska, but you’ve been outclassed.

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