Last month I had the great opportunity to join Alaska Airlines on a charter flight to experience their new Alaska Beyond inflight services. I’ve written about these upgrades before, but a few things — like new touchscreen tablets to replace the out-dated DigEplayers — still hadn’t made it to commercial service. The rollout of Alaska Beyond is now nearly complete, so we took off from Boeing Field to fly around the Pacific Northwest for a while and experience the whole package with other media and VIP Mileage Plan members.
Our reception was held at the Museum of Flight adjacent to Boeing Field, where representatives from Alaska Airlines and its various contractors were on hand to show off these new products.
I made a beeline for the new tablets. I normally bring my own book or a computer onboard, so in-flight entertainment on any domestic flight is less important. I’ve even argued that tablets (vs. built-in displays) are probably a better product overall since it avoids the operational expense and annoyance of putting screens in front of people who don’t want them. To go one further, Alaska only rents DigEplayers on flights of 2.5 hours or greater. Customers in first class or with MVP Gold 75K elite status receive their devices complimentary.
Despite these common sense economies, the devices Alaska had been using were definitely outdated. I think they were probably around before the first iPad and definitely before Alaska started rolling out in-flight Internet access, streaming entertainment, and new seats. The new devices have the same upright and reclining positions, as well as the ability to hang them from the seat pocket in front of you.
A lot of media — films, television episodes, games, etc. — are downloaded onto the device. A subscription service provides access to dozens of magazines. I asked and was told that newspapers are not currently available because they update daily and can’t be synced with the media players in their current configuration.
What is cool, however, is that the new players have Internet capabilities. If you have a newspaper subscription, you would be able to access GoGo in-flight WiFi and log into your own account. You can also access additional films and entertainment that is stored locally on the on-board servers without necessarily connecting to the ground. While many carriers offer in-flight WiFi these days, not many offer a computer to access it with if you forgot yours at home.
The one downside is that these tablets have only a single audio jack. I distinctly recall two audio jacks in the older devices, so you could rent one and share it with a companion. You may want to bring an audio splitter.
Alaska has used local food and beverage partners for many years, including Sun Liquor, one of my favorite local bars. We all got a pack of minis in our swag bags along with a recipe card for making one of their cocktails onboard. In addition to standard liquors like Jack Daniel’s, Alaska Airlines serves Sun Liquor gin, vodka, and rum and Crater Lake coffee liqueur.
(If you actually visit Sun Liquor for one of their weekend distillery tours, buy a bottle of the Gun Club Gin. I think it makes a better gin and tonic than the standard Hedge Trimmer.)
Alaskan Amber has long been the beer of choice onboard, and Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the most famous local wineries. We had some glasses of sparkling wine at the pre-flight reception and an opportunity to chat with one of Alaska’s wine consultants.
Food was provided by Beecher’s Cheese and Tom Douglas Restaurants. The same snack packs you can buy onboard were available at the reception with cheese, jerky, and chocolate cake. I’m not generally a cheese fan, so I packed one for my wife and ate the cake — which was very good.
I think I was most excited, however, to see Tom Douglas serving the in-flight meals. His restaurant group has been working with Alaska Airlines to come up with new catering options on flights departing Seattle, and on this particular trip we were the first to try a new pulled pork sandwich with accompanying cole slaw.
After going down the aisles to hand them out, Tom was back again to pick up all the trash!
Actually getting to this charter plane was a treat. When we left the reception area we found that Alaska had brought the plane right outside in the museum parking lot. Somehow I hadn’t noticed the fencing when I first arrived.
Alaska has nearly completed its plans to renovate the cabins on its mainline fleet with new seats and power outlets. I think they’re reasonably comfortable (considering most flights are just 2-3 hours), and the legroom was better than on a recent Uber Black trip I took to the airport. The change to first class is more noticeable, with more generous (and sturdy) tray tables and arm rests.
They’ve also been adding new overhead bins with greater capacity. I’m not so sure about that — it seems passengers always manage to break the rules and bring more and bigger bags onboard — but after several flights I do agree that the new shape makes the cabin feel more spacious.
You may have = heard that Alaska is planning to begin selling “premium economy” seats similar to United’s EconomyPlus, but in fact all they’re doing is offering non-elite customers the option to purchase access to their bulkhead and exit row seats. These were previously the exclusive domain of MileagePlan elite members and partner elites, so in a sense it is a downgrade to see them offered to others. But the prices are reasonable. If the experiment goes well, I’ve heard rumors they might remove some seats and increase the legroom in more rows of the economy cabin.
As a regular Alaska Airlines customer, very little of the new experience was new to me, but it was fun to see it all put together in a single trip. The tablets were especially exciting and worked well during our flight, being much more responsive than the older product. I look forward to using one on an upcoming trip to Maui.
To people who have asked me about the competitive threat Alaska faces as Delta expands its Seattle presence, I’ve always replied that Alaska has used it as an opportunity to grow and improve. Delta runs a very good airline. Alaska runs a very good airline, too, and one that’s getting better. Its quarterly earnings call last week included a record profit for Q1, and one number thrown about was a huge increase in customers applying for their co-branded credit card.
Alaska has had to play some catch up. Their former reputation for in-flight entertainment and connectivity was particularly poor. But they are doing a good job of improving to the point where they may have some of the best domestic service out of Seattle. For example, in addition to my status with Alaska I also have Executive Platinum status with American Airlines, yet I prefer to fly Alaska when I go to American’s Dallas hub. Onboard improvements like those above, as well as their always exceptional customer service, are why I look forward to flying Alaska whenever I have the opportunity.