On the tail of yesterday’s news that first class upgrade rules are changing at Alaska Airlines, this morning the carrier also announced the availability of upgrades to its “Premium Class,” which is essentially main cabin seating with extra legroom. Other carriers refer to this as Economy Plus (United Airlines), Comfort+ (Delta Air Lines), and Main Cabin Extra (American Airlines).
Preferred Plus seating, which was essentially just another way to market the Row 6 bulkhead seats and the exit row, will be discontinued and replaced with Premium Class as of January 6, 2017. Since those three rows represented just 18 seats with extra legroom, the new Premium Class offers roughly twice as many available seats. It’s expected that half the fleet will be reconfigured in time for the launch.
In addition, the number of first class seats will be reduced on some aircraft to make room. Pitch in first class will increase from 36 to 41 inches, and pitch in Premium Class will increase from the the economy class standard of 31 inches to 35 inches.
|Aircraft||Fleet Size||Current Cabin|
One of the disappointing realizations is that Premium Class will not be complimentary at the time of booking for all elite members. Instead, these upgrades will be processed similarly to first class upgrades: certain fares can be upgraded instantly, at the time of booking, while others will have to wait for complimentary upgrades closer to the gate. With more status, more fares are eligible. But as a general rule, more fares are eligible for instant Premium Class upgrades than are eligible for instant first class upgrades.
- MVP Gold 75K: All fares eligible for an immediate upgrade to Premium Class
- MVP Gold: Y, Z, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V N, and K fares are eligible for an immediate upgrade to Premium Class. Other fares may clear within 72 hours of departure.
- MVP: Y, Z, S, and B fares are eligible for an immediate upgrade to Premium Class. Other fares may clear within 48 hours of departure.
Important Note: Accepting an upgrade to Premium Class will not affect your chances of a first class upgrade. Think of it as a “second best” upgrade in case first class is unavailable. You can also purchase access to Premium Class for $15-79 per flight, even if you don’t have elite status.
How to Book Premium Class
Upgrading to Premium Class is very similar to how you would search for and upgrade to first class. Normally the results page shows just main cabin and first class fares. On the results page, select the type of upgrade you are using from the left-hand sidebar. An MVP Gold member would select “MVP Gold.” In the past this would add a third column for “first class upgrade” fares, but this particular flight between Portland and Austin has Premium Class installed. As a result there are two columns added: one for first class upgrades and a second for premium class upgrades.
Remember, not all fares are eligible for an immediate upgrade to Premium Class, just as not all fares are eligible for an immediate upgrade to first class. Selecting the appropriate upgrade type from the sidebar ensures you are presented with eligible fares, which may be more expensive (or not) than the least expensive main cabin fare.
There are also icons to show if a Premium Class upgrade can be confirmed immediately, or if space is unavailable. Like the blue/white F that I discussed earlier this week, there is a blue/white star for Premium Class.
It’s not clear what process would be used to buy a Premium Class upgrade after booking, or if you don’t have elite status. My guess is that would only become apparent on the itinerary page after the booking process is complete.
In addition to the extra legroom, Premium Class includes priority boarding, a complimentary alcoholic beverage, and a snack. The priority boarding and beverage are already provided to MVP Gold and 75K members, so the main benefit here is the snack box and the larger number of seats to choose from (although the availability of first class upgrades may decrease on some aircraft).
It seems like other customers will also see an improvement in service if they can snag one of the seats. As far as I know, Delta is the only other carrier that provides an alcoholic beverage in its extra legroom section on domestic flights, while other carriers just do it for international flights. The snacks could be nice, too — more carriers are doing this, but typically based more on elite status and not by seat assignment.
I’m most disappointed that Premium Class will not be automatic for MVP Gold members. I’ve long enjoyed the ability to sit in Row 6 or the exit row regardless of the fare purchased, which is no longer the case. This change will encourage me to buy more expensive fares, which isn’t necessarily justified by the minimal improvement in benefits I currently receive.
However, the changes also continue the theme from yesterday’s news that Alaska is trying to better differentiate the benefits of each elite tier. Previously there was not much added value in reaching for 75K over a mere Gold member. Gold members still get a lot — make no mistake, the access to Premium Class for Gold members is much better than for MVP members — but I am beginning to view it more as a true “middle tier” and not as the sweet spot it once was, as it has historically offered maximum return for relatively small investment.