OPINION: Calling B.S. on Alaska Airlines

The spin doctors at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines should be charged with malpractice for issuing a news release with the headline, “Alaska Airlines Eases Travel with Debut of Preferred Plus Seating Selection.”

Alaska "Salmon One" departing SEA
The headline - and indeed the airline's whole approach to the core issue - is misleading in the extreme. What the airline was announcing was that, effective May 14, it will charge many of its passengers $15 or more for the privilege of sitting at a bulkhead or in the exit rows because each of those has more legroom than the rest of the seats in the main cabin.

In an effort to make that decision more marketable, they tagged it “Preferred Plus Seating.”

While I am continually irritated by airlines' ongoing efforts to wring more and more “ancillary revenue” dollars out of their passengers by nickel-and-diming us in ever-more creative ways, Alaska is certainly not alone in that practice and I am not criticizing them for that. What I do find worthy of criticism is the fact that they are trying to present this as though they came up with a new way to make air travel, in the airline's own words, “better, easier, more pleasant.”

“Customers who like a little extra legroom now have more choices when flying Alaska Airlines, with the launch of Preferred Plus seating,” the carrier said in the news release.

More choices? How?

The number of seats with additional legroom has not changed; the only thing that has changed is that those passengers who are not among the airline’s elite tier frequent fliers will have to pay more to sit in those seats. Their only real “choice” will be whether they are willing to pay more, or to sit somewhere else.

Mileage Plan MVP, MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75k members will continue to have the option of reserving those seats without additional cost "from the time of booking through departure," the airline said, so it is unlikely that there will be any more seats with extra legroom available for those who are not elite tier Mileage Plan members than there were previously.

Even the name itself, “Preferred Plus Seating Selection” is potentially misleading. “Selection” and “Section” look so much alike that a casual reading of the news release could cause passengers to conclude the airline is adding a new section like United’s (NYSE:UAL) EconomyPlus or Delta’s (NYSE:DAL) Comfort+ when it is not.

Yes, passengers will receive a modest benefit for those slightly higher seat prices over and above the extra legroom. Passengers in the exit and bulkhead seats will receive priority boarding, and a complimentary cocktail or glass of wine or beer. But there are also trade-offs of which passengers should aware. Seats in row 6, the bulkhead row, do not have power available at the seat according to SeatGuru.com. In addition, the tray table is in the armrest, making the armrest immovable and slightly reducing seat width. Seats in row 16, the first of the two exit rows, do not recline so the benefit of the extra legroom in that row will be slightly offset.

"At Alaska, we're all about making the travel experience better for our customers," Sangita Woerner, Alaska's vice president of marketing, said in the release.

I would challenge Woerner to explain exactly how charging for something that was previously available at no cost makes the travel experience “better.”

If Alaska wants to starting charging more because those seats have more legroom, fine. It is what many other players in the industry are doing. But instead of trying to put lipstick on a pig, it should take a page from Nike’s (NYSE:NKE) playbook and “Just do it.”

Alaska Airlines is part of Seattle-headquartered Alaska Air Group (NYSE:ALK).

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
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