Alaska’s “Saver” Basic Economy Fare Will Include Limited Seat Assignments

Alaska said awhile ago it would roll out a Basic Economy fare to compete with low cost carriers the way that American, Delta, and United all have.  Despite that, Alaska said its product wouldn’t need to look the same as that of the other carriers.  Now, Alaska has put out a travel agency memo about the new product, called a Saver Fare, before it has released it into the wild.  How does it look?  Well, this memo makes it look more restrictive than Alaska said it would be regarding seats, but I’ve confirmed with the airline that this isn’t the whole story.

Let’s start with the timeline.  This will be put on sale in early November for travel beginning in January.  So if you’re flying this year and are trying to understand what’s happening, then you can ignore this entire post.

For the rest of you, here are the differences between Saver and regular coach.

  • Changes are not allowed (including same-day changes).
  • Saver fares board the airplane last, so bin space may be hard to find.  But carry-on bags will be allowed if they fit.
  • Mileage earning (redeemable miles and elite qualifying miles) is the same for Saver fares as for regular coach fares.
  • Elite members of the frequent flier program do not get benefits, including upgrades. (The only exception is that they keep their boarding priority.)
  • Seat assignment rules are tougher to explain, so let’s get into that further…

According to the travel agent memo, seat assignments will not be given in advance to those on Saver fares.  Those travelers will have the opportunity pay for Premium (extra legroom seats) if they want, but otherwise they have to wait until check-in.  But this rule apparently only applies to travel agents (on or offline) for now.

Brett Catlin, Alaska’s Managing Director of Guest Products, explained it this way:

Saver guests will have the opportunity to select seats toward the back of the aircraft (not necessarily middle seats) when booking on alaskaair.com. At launch, seats will not be available for selection through indirect channels [including global distribution systems, online travel agents, and travel management companies]. Hence the travel agent guide doesn’t reference seat assignments. It is our objective to ultimately have some seats available for selection through indirect channels.

I received further clarification here that this doesn’t mean people have to book Saver fares at alaskaair.com to get a seat assignment.  If they book through third parties, they’ll then just have to go to alaskaair.com and they’ll be able to get a seat there if one is available.

Updated 1/4: I have now confirmed the above is not correct. You cannot book through a third party and get seats after. Free seats are only available at the time of booking through Alaska directly, which is impressively unfriendly.

Other than allowing seat assignments, this looks like the Basic Economy offering at most other airlines.  From a technical perspective, it’s also handled similarly to how the other airlines do it.  Basic Economy will book into X class, but it will be at a discount off the regular selling coach fare.  Even though fares haven’t been filed yet so I can’t confirm, the way Alaska words this makes it sound like Saver fares will be offered on any selling coach fare, even the full fare.  United tried that and quickly backtracked, so I’m curious to see if this is actually how Alaska runs it.

As mentioned, Alaska will allow carry-on bags to be brought onboard for passengers on a Saver fare, but the only airline that doesn’t allow that today is United anyway.  So this is consistent with Delta and American.

This means there are really only a couple of differences between Alaska’s Saver fare and Basic Economy on the others. Here’s a chart.

AirlineSeatingCarry-OnsElite Qualifying Mile Earning
AlaskaSome seats at back for freeAllowedSame as coach
AmericanNone for free, paid regular seats at 48 hours before travelAllowed50 percent of coach
DeltaNone for free, paid regular seats at 7 days before travelAllowedSame as coach
UnitedNone for free, paid regular seats allowed anytimeNo50 percent of coach

As you can see, United’s Basic Economy fare is more restrictive in a few areas.  But when comparing to American and Delta, Alaska’s only differs in how seat assignments are handled, so let’s look at that closer.  In the first quarter earnings call, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Harrison said this:

I will tell you one thing that is very significantly different, which is really in the core of our brand, as when you book on Alaska Airlines, you get a seat assignment. And while that is not always the case today, if our flights are full but when you book the saver fare, you will get a seat assignment.

So for Andrew, seating really is a big differentiator, but I’m not so sure I think this will be better than what the other airlines have.  First of all, Alaska is going to have trouble messaging this.  “Fly our Saver fares and get a seat assignment, unlike on those other guys.”  That’s a good message, but the problem is the asterisk at the end that says “if it’s available.”

What if those seats are full?  This is similar to what I find obnoxious about preferred seating fees at the legacies today.  I’m repeatedly told by the other airlines that Basic Economy doesn’t include a seat assignment, so I should buy up if I want one of those.  But then when I buy up to coach, often there are no free seats left. 

If Alaska wants to message how it is different than the others, it’s going to have to talk about allowing seat assignments.  While we don’t know how many seats will be made available, it stands to reason that there will be plenty of times when seats won’t actually be available for those in Basic Economy.  And for those who book at third parties, they likely won’t know what’s available until after they’ve purchased and gone over to the Alaska website to figure it out.

If that’s the case, Alaska is going to have a hard time with the messaging on this.  If it can’t crow about it, then what’s the point in having the extra benefit?  I suppose we should wait to see how this is structured when it goes live next month, but for now it sounds like it could leave some people unhappy.

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27 Responses to Alaska’s “Saver” Basic Economy Fare Will Include Limited Seat Assignments

  1. Just a heads up that American’s elite qualifying miles/segments rate for Basic is 50% of of regular coach.(From their website – “Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) and Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs) earn at a reduced rate of 0.5 per mile/flight segment flown on flights marketed by American”).

  2. Dale says:

    This also begs the question: If you are flying a “Saver” fare and have a carry on but no bin space is available would the bag be checked for free or will there be a charge?

    • txjim says:

      And, how much time will be expended dealing with bags that have to be checked after boarding?

    • generally, on most airlines, gate checked bags don’t have any cost if bulk out. Airlines don’t want to penalize people for something that isn’t their fault. Worse, at that point, flight needs to go out to be on time — wouldn’t want to start a customer confrontation and delays a flight to get $30 when you risk burning more in gas from a takeoff delay

  3. Mark says:

    It’s not related specifically to AS, but why do you think UA has kept the carry-on bag restriction with their Basic Economy fares? I assumed it would end when AA dropped it on their side. I thought being the only one of the US3 with that restriction would hurt bookings.

    • Well they had almost three months (after the AA announcement) to see if it was hurting bookings and presumably decided it wasn’t.

      Or that the lost revenue from book aways was less than the cost of delaying departures by having to gate check so many carry ons. The point made by txjim above regarding AS expending time dealing with bags that have to be checked after boarding also holds for other airlines. AA has been banging on about D:0 but UA is beating them on that front by miles, and UA’s non-fuel unit costs have fallen.

    • CF says:

      Mark – Clearly they aren’t seeing any issues with the carry-on. Frankly it should be better for those on regular fares who now have more bin space.
      So in a perverse way, it could make United better. Though I don’t know the answer to this.

  4. Ron says:

    Here’s an idea for Alaska: always make the N least desirable seats available for saver economy. So maybe when a flight opens for booking it’s just the back row, but when that starts to fill up they open the next to last row for saver, and so on.

  5. Jimmy says:

    It’s possible that Alaska’s basic economy will offer more seat choices than American’s regular economy.

  6. Chase says:

    They are asking for so many headaches by not tying this to a specific booking class that is nested below all the others, for the exact reason of seat scarcity. If they nest this low enough, then as the plane fills up the basic economy class becomes not available anymore, thus avoiding the PR nightmare of marketing seat selection on these.

    Can I just say I absolutely despise this BE junk! Your chart above illustrates why this is such a mess to figure out for passengers.

  7. So as Alaska MVP Gold, if I don’t care where I sit, but do have a carry-on bag, this might be a great choice for me, since I will still get my miles and keeping my boarding priority right after first class definitely means I will put my bag up top. So… the only disadvantage is that I won’t get my seat upgraded as I often do now. I wonder what the price differential will be?

    • ptahcha says:

      Also, no changes to flight after purchase – including same day changes. If your trip is absolutely certain, then it makes sense.

      • haolenate says:

        … which just wiped out the #1 benefit to being Gold or higher at Alaska. The fact we can dump trips on a whim with no penalty sets Alaska apart, and after all the latest dilutions to perks and the BE fares, is about all we have left. Finding “U” space for upgrades to use our gold guest upgrades are about as hard to find as the Iraq WMDs, so instant upgrades are also near to impossible now, and the upgrade processor is still on the fritz – so many of us Golds/75Ks are not getting upgraded while others are buying it or jumping the queue.

      • Swindled Customer says:

        I realized since I booked a “Saver flight” & missed my plane, that I would have no value & have to rebook my flight. What I didn’t understand & find EXTREMELY unfair, is because I missed one flight, that makes my return flight invalid & I had to re-purchase my entire trip at last minute prices. NOT FAIR ON ANY LEVEL.

    • Oliver says:

      Great Choice if you believe that the Saver fare is actually cheaper than what you’d pay today. I am not convinced that that will be the case.

  8. Steve says:

    I wish the flying public would pay attention to the seat assignment part. Often I see a family of 5 board that’s spread out all over the plane and the flight attendants wil then ask people to move to accommodate the family even though the passengers moving are on a full fare ticket. How fair is that?

    • Kilroy says:

      Agree with you that the flying public needs to get assigned seats when flying with small children, lest a 4 year old be 10 rows away from an adult.

      My understanding is that in those cases switching seats is usually “voluntary” (at least as much as a request from a flight attendant can be), and that FAs often reward people who switch with free drinks etc. That said, if I like where I’m sitting, especially if I paid for my seat assignment (or, in the case of Delta BE, made the effort to check in exactly 24 hours prior to the flight to get it), I’m not going to move unless I have no other choice.

      • Ron says:

        Once upon a time, when my wife was traveling alone with our then 1-year-old and 2-year-old, there was a flight cancellation and they were reaccommodated on a 5-hour British Airways flight, with the 2-year-old separated by about 10 rows. The check-in agent at Heathrow said there was nothing she could do, but just in case asked to see the children; once she saw how little they were, she promptly seated them all together in premium economy (World Traveller Plus).

    • Oliver says:

      They (airlines) should not sell BE tickets without seat assignments to groups of travelers who include passengers who would otherwise require an unaccompanied minor ticket.

      The alternative would be to silently assign them suitable seats at the time of booking but not display that assignment to maintain the perception of BE

      • Kilroy says:

        With regards to your first sentence… You and I both know how that would get spinned in the press… “Airline X is ripping off traveling families by refusing to sell them the cheapest fare class!”

        I like the idea of your second sentence. When pax under X age get booked on the same itinerary as 1+ adult(s), set aside seats in the back of the plane for them, breaking up larger groups if necessary, such that each group of a kid or two plus an adult has a middle seat and a seat or two next to that middle seat. Then just don’t tell the family about the seat assignments until the usual BE seat assignment reveal time.

    • BiggusDikkus says:

      Well, how fair is it that a parent with a small child has to pay extra in order to sit next to them? I’m perfectly happy saving a little money to risk not sitting next to a friend or spouse during a flight, but the idea that I won’t sit next to my two-year-old who absolutely needs me unless I pay extra is ludicrous. How fair is THAT? Move your seat and enjoy your uninterrupted movie or book.

  9. Shizo says:

    “If they book through third parties, they’ll then just have to go to alaskaair.com and they’ll be able to get a seat there if one is available.”

    I booked through Expedia after making sure there available seats on alaskaair.com. However, after I booked on Expedia and signed into alaskaair.com, I was only offered the chance to upgrade to premium.

    • CF says:

      Shizo – I just discovered that as well. They only allow you to assign a free seat during the purchase. You can’t come back later even if it’s available. I’m going to update this post. Grumble, grumble.

    • Tamara says:

      I also booked thru expedia and when I went to reserve seats on alaskaair.com only premium seats are offered and for a ridiculously high price. There is no option to chose a standard or regular seats as they are all blocked.

  10. Ed says:

    I thought UA changed their EQM earning policies?

    https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/inflight/basic-economy.aspx

    MileagePlus members, including Premier members, will earn:
    * Award miles based on the fare and MileagePlus status
    * Full Premier qualifying dollars (PQD)
    * 50% Premier qualifying miles (PQM)
    * 0.5 Premier qualifying segments (PQS)
    * Lifetime miles
    * Toward the four-segment minimum

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