Alaska Airlines Tweaks Its Product for Longer Haul Flying

Alaska Airlines, Seats

Alaska is an airline on a tear right now. It’s posting record profits while expanding fairly quickly, not a combination that you often see. But what’s really interesting is that Alaska has effectively been pushed into this position by Delta’s attempt at a Seattle hub. And that nudge was apparently just what Alaska needed. Now, however, with Alaska’s growing long-haul operation, the time has come to update the product. We’ve seen several changes recently that show Alaska is working on it, and now the airline is branding the experience as Alaska Beyond.

Alaska Growing Up

Let’s think about the Alaska Airlines product as it has been for a long time. You have one fleet type with coach and First Class. All aircraft have wifi, but it doesn’t work on Hawai’i runs (which constitute 17 percent of the airline’s capacity). Inflight entertainment was provided by a bulky and expensive-to-rent DigEPlayer that had some pre-programmed content on it. And there were no power outlets for your own devices. For regional flying, the longer regional flights were operated with single class bare-bones CRJ-700s. Shorter flights were on the Q400s, which are nice airplanes. Of course, free microbrews can make anything nicer.

But the Alaska of old isn’t the Alaska of today. Many people still think of Alaska as a north-south kind of airline. It does a ton up and down the coast, but in the last 10 years, that has shrunk from 60 percent of the airline’s total capacity to only 42 percent. Next year, about 40 percent of the airline’s capacity will be mid- and long-haul flights.

The growth isn’t a surprise, but what is a bit surprising is where it’s coming from. Until the last couple of years, we saw a lot of growth outside the airline’s home market in the Pacific Northwest. There was a bunch of intra-California regional flying and then an attempt to build up San Diego with flights as far as Orlando. But then Delta decided to make Seattle a hub, and Alaska had to turn its focus inward and defend its home turf. The plan? Expand dramatically to make sure it could provide as much utility as it possibly could to its loyal customers. This worked wonders, and the growth continues. But much of the growth is long haul, because most of the short haul opportunities are already served.

To serve these new markets, Alaska needed a new fleet. The 737s are big, and the next step down is the CRJ-700 which is single cabin and not very comfortable. So at the airline’s investor day last week (I highly recommend thumbing through the presentation), Alaska announced that it would partner with SkyWest to operate 7 Embraer 175s. Unlike the CRJ-700s, these airplanes will feel like mainline aircraft. They will have First Class and coach onboard (though power is only in First Class). They will also have wifi, video streaming, and hot food available. With these aircraft, Alaska can push into longer markets with less demand. The first routes from Seattle are to Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. We’ll also see Portland to St Louis join the network.

Now, back to the onboard product. Alaska’s product just wasn’t great for long haul, so something had to change. That’s why we now have this Alaska Beyond program which is broken down into 3 categories.

Alaska Beyond Comfort
By the end of this month, every 737-800 and 737-900 in the fleet will have new slimline seats with power outlets. (The 737-700s and -400s do shorter flying and won’t be in the fleet for the long run.) The reviews I’ve heard of the new slimline seats are that, unlike nearly every other airline, they’re surprisingly very comfortable. If you’ve flown them, let’s hear about it.

Alaska Beyond Entertainment
The old DigEPlayers just didn’t make much sense anymore, especially with power outlets on the 737s making it easy for people to use their own devices. This new initiative is really just inflight streaming via Gogo. It’ll be on all the 737s by April, and it’ll be on the Embraer 175s as well. Like Delta, Alaska will keep some of this content free for everyone (even beyond the January intro period where absolutely everything is free). The only downside? There’s still no coverage on flights to Hawai’i, which is really frustrating. I’m told that Gogo has found a way to enable this over the water for Alaska, something that no other airline has done yet, so hooray for Hawai’i flights.

Alaska Beyond Delicious
You know the story here. It’s all about finding tasty, locally-sourced stuff (including microbrews).

With those three categories defined, Alaska has moved its product into something far better than it was, but there was still something missing: an extra legroom section.

The longer you fly, the more interested you become in having more legroom, so Alaska is addressing this conservatively. Instead of creating a new extra legroom section, it’s just going to sell the bulkhead and exit rows as Preferred seats. This is similar to the Virgin America strategy, except that Alaska isn’t charging an arm and a leg. It’s a simple upsell. On flights under 1,250 miles, it’ll cost $15. On flights from 1,251 miles to 2,000 miles, it’ll cost $30. And anything over 2,000 miles will cost $50.

In typical Alaska fashion, it’s adding some meat on the bones here. It’s not just more legroom. People in Preferred seating also get a free drink and priority boarding. (Doesn’t it sound a lot like Virgin America?) Elites will likely be unhappy about this since they are the only ones who can get these seats today. They’ll still have access, but the riff-raff now have a chance as well (Edit for clarification: this is only sold during the check-in window, otherwise only elites have access). On the 737s, there are 18 seats (3 rows) and on the Embraer 175s, there are 12 seats.

All of these little things add up to a much improved product over what Alaska had before. I’d say it’s mostly comparable to what Delta offers Seattleites, which is important for the airline, but with a better network. I’m not convinced that simply selling exits and bulkheads will be enough for the extra legroom option, especially when competing with Delta’s larger Comfort+ section. But other than that, it’s hard to argue with what they’re doing here.

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40 comments on “Alaska Airlines Tweaks Its Product for Longer Haul Flying

  1. I fly Alaska a few times a year, sometimes up-and-down the West Coast, and sometimes long-haul (e.g., DCA-SEA). I always get off the airplane thinking that, as economy goes, it was a good flying experience. The crews are pleasant, the buy-on-board food is excellent, and there’s an attention-to-detail that I like (e.g., the microbrews on the Horizon runs, emphasizing Pacific Northwest wines, etc.). So, I’m excited that they are further upgrading the product.

    I’ve flown in the new slimline seats twice, one short-haul and one long-haul. Brett, you’re right: they are very comfortable! Smart layout, too, with the placement of the plugs and the literature rack.

  2. The new seats are decent. I’ve only been in the exit row, so I can’t comment about knee room. The one really annoying thing is that the box under the aisle seat that supports the power outlets is ridiculously big. Bigger than the boxes that on some other airlines support a whole IFE system for the row. So that’s annoying.

  3. When Alaska announced serving Milwaukee with Embraer 175’s I thought it would be too cramped, but seeing these new details, it sounds as if it will be a better experience than I might have thought. It’ll be interesting to see if this Midwest and breadbasket city connections are successful and if there are sufficient pax to justify. They may be stimulating service as there is not alot of service between these specific city pairs.

  4. Alaska Beyond Entertainment WILL be available on Hawaii flying, despite what is said in this article. The new streaming entertainment system uses a server and WiFi system housed on-board each airplane, meaning that it can be used anywhere on the globe. No, Gogo in-flight wireless Internet will not be available over the ocean (like today), but the streaming content is independent of that Internet service and will be available on ALL flights. Just felt the need to clarify that error in the article. Thanks!

    1. Taylor (and aarong34) – I just confirmed this with Gogo. Alaska is the first airline that will in fact be able to offer streaming over the water and into Hawai’i. That’s fantastic. When I last spoke with Gogo, they said that they still had no ability to stream videos outside of internet-connected areas. While the movies were stored on the aircraft, the DRM and payment required connecting to the internet. So if you fly any other airline with Gogo Vision streaming right now, none can do it outside internet-connected areas. Alaska is the first.

      1. I’m surprised it took this long to get to.. Just store the credit card number and run it on the ground, or once you find Wifi connectivity.

        The DRM thing is annoying, but there shouldn’t be any reason the onboard server can’t do it it..

      2. United must be using something other than Gogo Vision for their personal device entertainment system, because theirs was working on my LAX-HNL (pmCO 757-300) and HNL-LAX (pmUA 777-200) flights last month.

        1. That’s correct. United has Panasonic satellite wifi and the streaming
          comes through that, I believe. They only have Gogo on the p.s. fleet.

          1. Are you saying they stream the video via satellite? That seems very doubtful. I read that they have the video on servers onboard,

            1. Oliver – No, sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that the movies are streamed
              via satellite. They’re on a hard drive on the airplane, but I just believe
              it’s part of the same system.

  5. Hey Cranky – just to clarify, the streaming entertainment WILL be available on flights to Hawaii. The content is stored on servers onboard the aircraft and streamed to your wireless device (or a tablet you can rent from Alaska). No need for a wifi connection to access it.

    1. I wish I had taken a picture of the seatback card. Streaming was not available for IPHONE specifically on my flight from Hawaii yesterday. Hope they can get gogo onboard streaming working throughout the network on all devices. There are holes flying across Canada from ANC as well if I remember.

  6. Wow, it really sounds like you have been seduced by Alaska’s Kool-aid!
    I recently flew the new slimline seats on SEA-EWR and BOS-SEA and they are anything but comfortable on a long haul flight. For 2 hour flights they are fine. But after that my rear got sore. They don’t have much padding, and the seat bottom feels a bit short to me. They certainly don’t seem any more comfortable than the competition.
    As for the Preferred legroom seats, that has to end up being a sham. As it is I often don’t find any of these seats left to reserve if I have to book a flight close-in, especially on the long haul routes. So either Alaska is going to hold them for sale until day of flight, as they promised, and there won’t be many left to sell. Or they are going to sell them out from under elites. It will certainly make same day change less valuable, at least for anyone who is tall or wants to try to work on the plane. If Alaska had followed UA & DL in creating a proper Economy Plus section that would have made more of a difference.

    As to IFE on Hawaii flights, I sure hope that the streaming entertainment runs off a local server so that it can operate even outside Gogo’s reach.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Alaska, and many features of the Mileage Plan. But Alaska’s inflight product isn’t better than UA’s or DL’s, and even with these improvements, they do not catch up all the way.

    1. Is there any such thing as Alaska’s Cool-aid? Comfort is to each, and your size, height, and weight are huge factor. It’s pretty obvious that the author and you are not the same size. If Alaska has are behind of UA and DL, please state them. Don’t say they need catch and leave it at that.

  7. Since DL is building up SEA to feed it’s transpacific flights and AS is using SEA for local traffic and to move people to/from Alaska, it doesn’t really seem like DL or AS need to defend themselves against each other very much.

    1. Particularly since it turned out that DL’s growth at SEA has largely been at the expense of United, not Alaska.

    2. Hubs still need local O/D traffic, and DL needs to get the loyalty of SEA based flyers. They are actually competing, especially on corporate contracts and for international flyers. So far Alaska is winning for anyone not under a corporate contract or with heavy international flying.

  8. I’ve flow transcons in Alaska’s slimline seats 4 or 5 times over the last several months, and I do find them quite comfortable. They do a particularly good job with the knee room by keeping the magazine rack up high. I generally strongly prefer exit rows or economy plus type products, but I really don’t feel the need for it on AS, even transcon.

    I also can’t sit in either an exit row or Alaska’s row 6 right now because my travel on AS is all with my infant — no infants in exit rows (obviously) or row 6 (because of air bags in the seat belts). That means that even if I wanted to purchase an extra leg room seat from AS (or get assigned there, as I have elite status with both AA and DL), I couldn’t.

    The trouble with Economy Plus products these days is that airlines aren’t actually removing a row anymore; they’re just cramming Economy Minus rows even closer together. So this is yet another reason why I appreciate and choose Alaska whenever I can: their economy product really is noticeably better for the hoi polloi than the big three.

  9. I think AS will find itself increasingly challenged to keep higher-yield/more SEA-based frequent travelers against efforts like Delta Comfort+. AS has such a limited number of Preferred seats that they leave Delta with a considerable advantage to attract and keep corporate accounts, individual frequent business travelers, and other higher-yield passengers.

    PS: Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select offers extra legroom, priority boarding, one free checked bag, and unlimited snacks/food/beverages – far more than AS Preferred. That said, VX is a teeny tiny competitor for AS.

  10. Just returned yesterday in F class from Hawaii. The Recaro seats were surprisingly uncomfortable – didn’t like them at all.

  11. I’ve flow AS from SEA to DCA a bunch of times since they started putting the Recaro seats in and I really like them. (Disclaimer: I am 5’3″ and 140 lbs., so I don’t have trouble fitting in most coach configurations. Taller/bigger people will probably beg to differ with my comfort assessment of any seat). Moving the literature rack up was smart and the power outlet is excellent. The only way to make these seats better (IMO) would be a cup holder that didn’t require putting the tray table down, and making the mesh stuff pocket on the seatbacks a bit bigger so that they could hold a 20 oz. bottle of water AND a few little things. Oh, and I’ll reveal my age… a footrest, like airplane seats used to have, would be lovely. LOL

    I don’t care at all about the DigE Players because I always have my Kindle Fire and iPod, but the streaming stuff might be useful to me especially when traveling with the kids. Alaska’s food is good when you choose to buy it and the staff is excellent. I am MVP so I get two free checked bags per person on my itinerary. I do not like making the preferred seats available to others earlier because I like to sit relatively up front in the plane, or over the wings at least. Delta would have to give me free checked bags and really great food to lure me away for my corporate travel, and I doubt you could lure me away for anything for all my leisure flights.

    My only gripe with AS right now is that they are fighting the $15 Sea-Tac minimum wage ordinance. Pay a livable wage. Increase fares a couple of bucks. I’m OK with that, and very few people would even notice. It would be a differentiator, like Costco treating their employees well, that would make me even happier to fly AS and more likely to stay loyal even if it cost me a little.

    1. I believe AS does pay extremely well, on par, with everyone else. AS is fighting a 60% pay increase. This will directly impact everyone, as the skill workers will demand a pay raise once they know the “unskilled” workers are getting similar pay as them. It will create an internal bomb or cancer among the co-workers. Increasing minimum wage will not fix our current issue, education and training will.

  12. I’ve flown AS on the new seats. I like them, although I was only on a SEA->SFO and OAK->SEA turn. I really like how the airline has separated their stuff (Magazine, Safety Card, Menu, etc.) from your stuff.

    I’ll agree with folks that the power box seems a bit too big. My one small gripe is the USB power ports don’t put out enough voltage to charge my iPhone 5s. Which really isn’t a huge problem as I’ll just plug my adapter into the 115V power port and plug my phone into that.. Bit of extra wiring, but it isn’t horrible.

    AFAIK, one of AS’s strategies with the E175 is to open the markets up until the point where they can be profitably served by a 737.

  13. I am apparently the outlier when it comes to AK’s new slim seats. I find them horrendously uncomfortable. I do have back issues, and anything with forced lumbar support puts a lot of strain on my lower back. And these seats have a ton of it, making even 30 minutes in these seats close to excruciating. I’m a low-level AK MVP, so I do a fair amount of flying with them. I’m at a loss on what I’m going to do on the transcons. Additionally, the seat pockets are so slim they barely have room for an iPad, let alone a book.

  14. Hi Cranky,

    Alaska is decent in economy but it’s a shame their F product isn’t better. Slimline seats aren’t bad but aren’t any more comfortable than before… The power ports are nice. As Mike mentioned above, the underseat boxes in the aisles are pretty annoying and seem like bad design.

    I am a little annoyed about charging for row six and exit rows — these are actually available to general members at check in. I was usually able to get one somewhere between check in and boarding after checking for seats to open. From the sound of it, elites will still be able to reserve these seats at booking but general members will be required to pay. I hit MVP in October so hopefully it won’t impact me, but I previously felt Alaska was above the vast search for ancillary revenue. (Granted, Alaska also started charging for bags during their North of Expected campaign … that specifically touted free bags.)

    As for the E175s, I noticed awhile back that SkyWest has a bunch of orders and options for E-jets (40 firm, 60 reconfirmable with 100 options… And 100 firm with 100 options for the E175 E2 jets.) 40 of the first order are allotted to United Express with seven to Alaska so far, but it will be interesting to see how many more of these get assigned to Alaska. Oh, and then there are the 100 orders plus 100 options for the new Mitsubishi MRJ90s with a capacity of upmto 96 passengers. As far as I know the Alaska pilots don’t have a scope clause, so I would not be surprised to see SkyWest’s relationship grow even further (possibky significsntly further.) I am sure the Alaska pilots aren’t excited about it, but at least it is through a decent regional and on relatively comfortable planes.

    1. Hua – Yeah, those MRJs are the most confusing to me. Why would you order
      that knowing that most of your partners can’t have you operate it? Even if
      Alaska were to take a few, that still leaves a whole lot of them sitting
      around waiting for homes.

      1. Would it be possible for SkyWest to start marketing and selling their own flights with with the MRJ’s?

        1. It would be possible but somewhat unlikely, IMHO. They would need their own PSS and would likely want to be available for GDS booking. I suppose they could partner with somebody to do at risk flying, but it seems unlikely with that size of aircraft.

          1. The last two regionals that tried to market flights on their own were failures. There was an effort called Independence Air out of IAD, and Republic bought Frontier and that didn’t last for very long before they sold it at a loss.

            1. Yeah… I distinctly remember Independence. I also remember seeing former ACA CRJ-200s in their Independence livery operating UAX flights after being sold to SkyWest.

              I sure would have liked to see something happen with Midwest and Alaska rather than what happened with Midwest, Frontier, and Republic :(

  15. The Virgin America main cabin select upgrade doesn’t cost an “arm and a leg” over the price Alaska Airlines is planning. In fact, the price structure is similar, and probably a better value on Virgin America for someone who will take full advantage of the unlimited free drinks, food, snacks, and movies. It’s a well kept secret among the MCS regulars.

  16. I flew the AS slimline yesterday (I’m a Platinum level captive of UA, because of the routes i fly but prefer the AS or VX inflight experience). As slimline seats go, AS’s are excellent. They are still slimline seats (which is sort of like being a murderer, but not a serial killer), but unlike UA, where the VP in charge of slimline seats needs to be fired immediately and banned from the industry for life, they are slightly more comfortable and have power! The pocket is, like UA’s and probably everyone else who has slimline seats, completely useless. iPad fits, but nothing more. They need a cupholder or a bottle holder to make up for the non-pocket.

  17. With the E175s on order will we see SEA-ABQ turn into a Skywest route that is my question. I mean I was surprised when they even added ABQ with 738s since SW flies it at least twice a day? (Could be one now not sure) Are there any other cites like an ABQ that could go to E175s from mainline Alaska?

  18. Cranky…really nice job of explaining the features coming on Alaska and the rationale behind them. Domestically their service has been head and shoulders above the rest and now the product will match the service. BTW, putting the power plug for each seat, where you can reach it without awkwardly fidgeting around your fellow passengers feet, priceless !!!

    Nice work on this article !

    1. True. Its even better than AA’s 737-800 setup where the power port is between the seats at the seat pan. So for that you have to go fidgeting around your seat mate’s thighs..

      Although the last time I was on an AA 737-800 I had the row to myself, so it didn’t much matter..

  19. Just flew HNL/SEA on Tuesday and had the new streaming entertainment so yes it works mainland/Hawaii. A huge improvement over the Digiplayers as there is much greater choice. The variety is on par with carriers like British or Delta international. I also love the new slim line seats and think they are more comfortable. Overall AS delivers the most consistent domestic product and certainly has the most engaged employees and I will continue to be a loyal customer based on this.

    1. I just flew in from HNL to SEA yesterday as well. The streaming on your device content did not seem to be available on my iPhone ( and the seat back card indicated it would not be). Maybe the Android world has different DRM issues. I was able to stream when close to the west coast and enjoyed it. I think it has potential but I hope they get the streaming onboard gogo product to work everywhere they go. I think they will be happy when the e players are replaced by bring your own device for most people. One less set of transactions to do on board.

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