72 Hours With Alaska: Introduction to the Milk Run and Getting to Anchorage

72 Hours With, Alaska Airlines

It’s been awhile since I posted the preview of my Milk Run adventure, but now it’s finally time to dig in. Enjoy this while I take a much-needed vacation.

Preview: A Video Preview Of the Milk Run
Part 1: Introduction to the Milk Run and Getting to Anchorage
Part 2: Aviation in Anchorage
Part 3: The Northern Part of the Milk Run
Part 4: Juneau and Alaska Seaplanes
Part 5: The Southern Part of the Milk Run
Part 6: Going Home and Wrapping Up

[Disclosure: Alaska paid for this trip]

When you think of Alaska Airlines, you may think of the Seattle hub or even the recent Virgin America acquisition. You probably, oddly enough, don’t think about the state that gave the airline its name. But the operation the airline runs in the State of Alaska is one of the more amazing things you’ve probably never seen. Not only does Alaska fly more than 70 routes to 19 cities in the state, but it has played a key role in building the state’s infrastructure, including 11 terminals of its own, since its earliest days 85 years ago.

Later this year, one of the airline’s most unique and impressive operations will come to an end. Alaska will be retiring its 737-400 Combi aircraft, an airplane that fits 4 “igloos” full of cargo up front and 72 people in the back. Today, these operate as a lifeline throughout the state carrying people, mail, luggage, and basic essentials to some incredibly remote places.

One of the more iconic flights these aircraft operate is the so-called “Milk Run” through Southeast Alaska, so named because Alaska literally delivers the milk to several small communities between Anchorage and Seattle. I had toyed with the idea of taking the trip for years, but it had never happened. With time running out, Alaska’s SVP, External Relations Joe Sprague (who cut his teeth flying around Southeast Alaska) invited me to join him on the ride.

I initially envisioned this as a trip report with a plethora of video and photos, but once I got to Alaska, I knew there was a lot more here. I spoke with all kinds of people, from the lady returning home to Petersburg after visiting her children in the lower 48 to the 27-year Captain who literally wrote the book on sightseeing out the window of these Alaska aircraft. I quickly learned that Alaska was much more than just an airline up there. It’s a part of the fabric of the state. The end result was one of the more remarkable aviation experiences I’ve ever had, and one that fit perfectly into the “72 Hours With” series that has been dormant for all too long.

Before this adventure could begin, however, I had to get up to Alaska. And that’s where our tale begins today. The airline booked me in coach on all flights, but on the first (and longest) leg up to Anchorage, they put me in premium class, Alaska’s version of extra legroom seating. I checked in on the app the day before and began the long slog up to LAX during rush hour. About 1.5 hours after I left home, the parking shuttle pulled up to Terminal 6 and I jumped off.

I do like the way Alaska’s Terminal 6 looks, though the last time I was here, it was on that mess of a Delta flight to Phoenix. The Pre Check line moved quickly, and soon I was in the neck of the building. Seeing all the Virgin America flights leaving from there was strange. Within the last 5 years, I’ve flown United and American from these gates. Now it’s Alaska/Virgin America territory.

The terminal was absolutely packed. I went over to the gate but there wasn’t a seat to be found and a lot of people were standing. So I just wandered. I noticed that the old smoking patio has reopened as a pet area.

I stepped out there to enjoy the peaceful surroundings (and jet fuel smell). I came back in to find our flight had been delayed 15 minutes since the aircraft was late being towed over, and boarding hadn’t begun. At this point, people were all anxious and crowding the gate, so I was able to snag a seat.

After boarding a few groups, they called premium class, and I went up to board.

The gate crowding was so ridiculous that people waiting to board in coach were standing right in front of the podium blocking the line for anyone else to use. I just used the elite line to get around them.

This was my first time flying on an aircraft in Alaska’s new colors, and I like the welcome message painted next to the door.

June 14, 2017
Alaska 129 Lv Los Angeles 930a Arr Anchorage 152p
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 65A, Runway 24L, Depart 14m Late
Anchorage (ANC): Gate C3, Runway 7L, Arrive 7m Late
N562AS, Boeing 737-890, Eskimo with Green colors, ~90% Full
Seat 10A, Premium (extra legroom coach)
Flight Time 4h51m

As I boarded, I heard a kid making PA announcements. There was an eager little one (maybe 4 or 5?) who was up in the cockpit and the pilots were clearly having a great time. She told us the flying time, our turbulence forecast, and more; pausing each time to get instructions.

I made it back to my seat and found the horror of seat 10A. There’s no window.

This may be premium class, but I’d take a seat in the back with a window any day. Next time, I’ll know better.

I took my seat and it felt a bit stiff at first. But it really didn’t bother me over time, so I guess it was just an initial impression. I do like the way Alaska has organized its seatback pocket at the top of the seat. It’s easy to find everything with those tabs.

There was plenty of legroom, as expected, and the seats all looked nice with a different color leather than regular coach.

The middle seat remained empty until the bitter end when someone finally came in to fill it. The smell of alcohol instantly wafted over me. He sat down and put his sunglasses on. I heard him tell the guy next to us that he was connecting through Anchorage to get to Hawai’i. I guessed he was an employee, but as I found out later, that wasn’t quite right.

We headed to the north runways and took off into clear skies. Once we got up to altitude, I broke out my laptop and logged on to Gogo. I was shocked to find the price only $9.95 for this nearly-5 hour flight. I guess there’s not much demand on a leisure route like this one up the coast so they price it low.

The flight attendants came through the cabin to rent tablets for those who wanted one, but the beverage/snack service didn’t begin for a full hour into the flight. Once they came through, I ordered a fruit and cheese plate.

I wanted a scramble but this one had mushrooms and tomatoes, my two least favorite foods. I liked the nice touch from the flight attendant. After I paid, she said “Thanks, Brett” after having seen my name on the credit card.

In premium class, drinks are free. So, well, you know what happened next. No Wild Turkey on this flight, so I stuck with a Dewar’s. That guy next to me who already smelled like booze? He ordered a double shot of vodka and a Bud Light. The flight attendant told him she couldn’t give him more than 2 at a time, and he seemed ok with that, reducing his order to a single shot of vodka.

They also handed out a very nice little “Lite bites” box that’s free for premium class travelers.

Apparently they’re testing different box contents, but here’s what was in mine.

Soon, I found out my seatmate was traveling with someone else… when he yelled her name loud enough to reach her a few rows ahead of us. Then he spilled his Bud Light and started yelling “son of a bitch” a few times. He soon calmed down and drank what was left.

With my earphones firmly in my ears, I thought it was odd when he tapped me on the shoulder to shake my hand and tell me his name was James. Soon after, he seemed to drift off, but he was also spreading his legs wide and intruding on my space. That fixed itself when he put his head on the tray table to sleep, but then the beverage cart came rolling again and he perked right up. The flight attendant apologized that she only had Miller Lite this time, but he didn’t seem too concerned.

At this point, the people in front and behind me decided to close their windows, so I had no view at all. We’re flying to freakin’ Alaska people! There was probably a good view out there since we tracked along the coast the whole way north.

Meanwhile, my seatmate decided to tap me again to tell me that he was feeling jetlagged and it seemed like 4 in the morning. Good to know. He then promptly put his head on the tray table. I thought he was passed out, but he kept periodically lifting his head to drink his beer. You don’t think I’d let this happen without getting a picture did you? Here he is.

I flipped on the free entertainment that Alaska offers via streaming, and I saw in the magazine that “Hidden Figures” was an option. But once I logged on, I didn’t see that anywhere. There were a ton of options, but nothing else really grabbed me, so I headed back to use the lav.

It turns out, the flight attendants were really friendly and talkative with a little downtime, so I hung out with them for awhile. We talked about the airline, flying around Alaska, and they gave me some tips for my Hawai’i trip since I don’t know the Big Island well at all. I didn’t want to get in their way, but they would occasionally go to walk the cabin and said if they wanted me to go, I’d know it. So I hung around.

Eventually, I went back to my row and found my drunken neighbor in my seat, sleeping up against the non-window. He woke up and moved back when I arrived. At least he was a light sleeper.

I sat back down and logged on to the internet. Gogo wasn’t fast, but I didn’t expect it to be. It was functional at about 1.3 Mbps down and I could do what I needed.

The flight attendants came through with another drink service and asked me if I wanted the same. I did. Next thing I know, I had a double Dewar’s sitting in front of me. Oh boy.

I was deep in online conversation with some of my coworkers at Cranky Concierge when my neighbor leaned in, stared at the screen and said “What are you doin’ here, dude?” I told him I was reading email and chatting with coworkers. He just stared, confused, and said he had no idea what was going on. Sure, that wasn’t weird.

I’m glad I was in such a good mood, because I could only keep laughing, waiting to see what he’d do next. Eventually, he drifted back into conversation with the guy next to him and I went back to work.

About half an hour out of Anchorage, the pilots came on to tell people to use the lavs soon since we’d be descending. Then a flight attendant came on to do the credit card pitch, and she did it well. She said that thanks to the merger with Virgin America, there are a ton of great opportunities to take advantage of the big growth in Alaska’s network. You could a) become a flight attendant, b) marry a flight attendant, or c) apply for the credit card and get the cheap annual companion ticket. Having heard so many of these sales pitches on various airlines, I thought this one was done really well. I learned later some flight attendants make 6 figures annually selling credit cards onboard. She was probably one of them.

It was finally time to descend, and I was really sad about that. This was a highly entertaining flight despite not having a window. I was particularly annoyed that the people in front of me and behind didn’t open their windows during descent. This is Alaska! I want to see things.

I couldn’t take it anymore, so I leaned over and asked the people if they’d mind opening the window and they obliged.

As we descended, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked the guy next to me where he was coming from since he had earlier said he was jetlagged. The answer? Long Beach. Say what? He then went on to explain that he was jetlagged from a bad break-up not from, you know, flying. That makes perfect sense, right? (Poor bastard…)

I later found out my seatmate was traveling with an Alaska employee on a pass. While he was odd, he never seem threatening. I actually found him incredibly entertaining on this long flight. I hope James had a nice ride down to Hawai’i, and he’s getting over his break-up.

I walked off the airplane to find my adventure was beginning sooner than I thought. We were going to take a tour of the air traffic control tower. That and the rest of my time in Anchorage will have to wait for part two.

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17 comments on “72 Hours With Alaska: Introduction to the Milk Run and Getting to Anchorage

  1. Say it ain’t so Cranky. Five hours with no window and a drunk next to you?
    I’m antsy just thinking about it.

  2. Greetings, Brett.

    Next time you come north, get a window seat on the right side of the cabin – that way you are facing toward land and will have a much more interesting view.

    Hope you had fun!

    David Epstein Juneau, AK A Cranky devotee

  3. I’m surprised this guy was allowed on the plane. If he smelled of booze that much..the FAs should have caught that and tossed him off the plane.

    1. And on a pass, too. His sponsoring employee could lose benefits for a stunt like that. You absolutely don’t come on a plane with a pass rider who is already drunk.

    2. Agreed, Doug. FAs are required to follow operational regulations including §121.575, which prevents air carriers from allowing any person to board if that person appears to be intoxicated, and it prevents the FA from serving alcohol to any person who appears to be intoxicated. The FA on this flight may have been a great credit card sales person, but it sounds like she also bent a few serious regulations.

      Additionally, employees are held accountable for the behaviour of their pass riders, so I’m surprised to read Brett’s account that this passenger who appeared to be intoxicated was blatant about traveling on a pass. The first rule of non-revenue travel is to say nothing to anyone and to follow all the rules.

      1. except Alaska’s non-revs tend to have their bling in everyone’s faces… ie their IDs, lanyards, etc. Some airlines ask you to take them off, but its normally super easy to spot an Alaska non-rev with their lanyard/IDs around their necks.

        As a Gold 75K, its a bit annoying, especially when they’re seated near me and flash their ID to get around paying for players/food, etc. It just rubs the flyers the wrong way. At least when I do non-rev on a pass, I’m quiet about it and I pay for anything/everything (nor try to ask for my 75K bennies).

      2. catherine – Not that this matters, but the credit card salesperson was different than the person who served the drinks. ;)

        But honestly, other than the smell of alcohol when I first boarded, this guy didn’t outwardly appear drunk. I don’t know that a flight attendant would have easily seen it in such a short interaction.

  4. Airlines that sell seats at, or have you sit in a window seat with no window should have their operating certificate revoked…should I become President…my first executive order!!!

    We don’t allow smoking on planes, why do we allow drinking, or anyone to board who has obviously been drinking…executive order number 2!!!

    Of course, we all know “open carry, guns and booze onboard,” is not that far away! Heaven help us!

    1. Sean – I know, it’s criminal I didn’t check right away. But this was booked by Alaska. I had asked for a window seat, and they gave me one. It didn’t dawn on me that there would be a seat in the tiny premium cabin that had no window. Bad planning for sure. I did check when it got closer, but this is where my memory gets hazy. Either the rest of the windows were taken or I couldn’t switch myself since there was no payment involved for the original seat. Can’t remember.

  5. The ‘no window?’ picture is a keeper… but I can’t help but remember your reply to one of my posts about people who close the window shades by saying you leave control of the window shade to the occupant of the window seat.

    Glad you took the approach you did…. and Alaska isn’t the only state that is worth looking out at.

  6. I have made that mistake before on Alaska’s 737s too! A seat map on a SEA-DEN flight was full and wouldn’t let me choose until check-in. I should have been more suspicious when I later saw that one particular window seat near the front was available, yet virtually nothing else was. I’m usually pretty diligent about checking beforehand, but recently I feel like I know the planes well enough and don’t always trust SeatGuru to be accurate. I learned my lesson!

  7. Is anybody else stunned that somebody would leave Long Beach to get to Hawaii… via Anchorage?

    1. Probably a busy route direct with no non-rev availability…non-rev flying takes you through some very interesting airports and itineraries

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