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As we transition into 2019, Alaska Airlines sits in an interesting place. They are big enough to be taken seriously among the major airlines, but still too small to do many “major airline” things.
One example of those “major airline” things that Alaska Airlines has been struggling with, is joining airline alliance. Alaska Airlines has been trying to build up their own team of partner airlines for quite some time.
At the peak of these efforts, their partners included both American Airlines and Delta, the Flying Blue airlines (KLM and Air France), plus Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, AeroMexico, and 17 oneworld airlines. But recently their partnerships have been dwindling, even though they still partner with some exceptional airlines like Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Emirates.
And of course Alaska Airlines miles are still some of the most valuable airline miles out there. Keith just booked $32,000+ in flights for under $200 using his Alaska Airlines miles. If you’re interested in learning the same tricks, check out this guide.
Alaska Airlines Elite Status Needs to Become More Valuable for International Travel
Alaska Airlines’ partners were secretly some of the best airlines in the world. That was why I put all my mileage earning efforts toward Alaska Airlines Elite Status and Alaska Airlines miles back in 2016. At the time, you could fly 3 of the top 5 major US domestic carriers (Delta, American, Alaska) with just Alaska Airlines miles. They also offered unprecedented access to Europe (oneworld airlines and Flying Blue airlines), Asia (Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Hainan, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Korean Air), Latin America (LATAM Airlines and AeroMexico) and Oceania (Qantas and Fiji Airways).
Unfortunately, those who have followed Alaska Airlines closely the past few years already know how this story ends. What was once the greatest partnership in history has now deteriorated into dust. Bringing into question whether or not their elite status is still worth it.
The Delta and Alaska Airlines’ battle began when Alaska purchased Virgin America in 2016. The merger turned Alaska Airlines into a major threat for West Coast dominance basically overnight. That battle turned to all-out war as Alaska Airlines opened up more and more flights to its hub in Seattle. This influx of flights has maxed out the capacity of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, an airport that Delta has been building up for a while as their “Gateway to Asia.”
With Alaska Airlines causing this airport to bust at the seams, Delta has had a hard time adding new Seattle-bound flights to funnel into their international Asia itineraries that take off from there.
Alaska Airlines now has almost double the market-share in San Francisco as Delta (15% vs 8%) and over double the market-share of flights in Seattle (50% vs 21%). This competition caused Delta to end its relationship with Alaska Airlines back in 2016. Not long after, the Department of Justice forced Alaska Airlines to “significantly scale back codeshare agreements with American Airlines” in order to complete the Virgin America acquisition.
Following that, Delta successfully pressured all the other SkyTeam airlines to cut ties with Alaska Airlines, which ended as of April 30, 2018. As Alaska Airlines scaled back their American Airlines codeshare, another mass-exodus of 8 oneworld carriers then stopped partnering with Alaska Airlines.
All in all, it has been a rough 24 months for Alaska Airlines partners. What was once the greatest airline partnership pseudo-alliance, is now little more than a handful of loosely tied together airlines.
Alaska Airlines Needs International Support to Make Their Elite Status Worth It
I have spoken at great lengths about why I love being an Alaska Airlines elite status member. They offer valuable miles, easy complimentary upgrades, free premium beverages, and more. But when I leave the country I basically have to kiss those perks goodbye. Alaska Airlines elite status only extends to 4 airlines, and the perks are limited only to bonus miles and lounge access (no upgrades, no free drinks, etc).
As valuable as Alaska Airlines’ elite status is, the lack of international support is difficult to accept. Getting and maintaining elite status is hard, and for most people, maintaining a single airline elite status is all that is practical. So by reaching for Alaska’s elite status, I am effectively sacrificing any potential for elite status perks while traveling abroad.
Because of all this, I have seriously considered working toward Delta (SkyTeam) elite status in 2019, instead of Alaska Airlines’ elite status. This is why Alaska Airlines must figure out options to extend their elite status for more international travel, or they risk losing loyal travelers, like myself, to other elite status programs.
The answer to these problems is for Alaska Airlines to join an alliance.
Which Alliance Makes Sense?
So what is next for Alaska Airlines? As I mentioned before, they stand at a very awkward spot in their growth (currently the 5th largest US airline). They are still too small to really build up their own alliance. But too large and competitive on their own to ride in the shadow of another major carrier.
A Delta partnership is almost certainly not going to happen. These two airlines have become far too competitive now as they both fight for market share on the busy west coast. But a partnership with oneworld (American Airlines, et al) is likely. Both of these alliances have huge international presences, which could benefit Alaska Airlines’ elite status members.
Alaska Airlines needs a major partnership in order to succeed (and to keep valuable frequent fliers), while also maintaining its autonomy and not getting weighed down by the requirements many partnerships invoke on its’ members.
This is why it seems almost certain that in 2019 we will see Alaska Airlines join the oneworld alliance as a new “connect” airline. Alaska Airlines’ Chief Commercial Officer, Andrew Harrison backed this up via a recent statement to Skift:
“There’s a oneworld Connect membership that we’re looking it. The whole goal here is to ensure that when people in the cities we serve travel internationally they are on our partners so they stay in our program.”
This oneworld Connect is exactly what Alaska needs. It is a way for an airline to be “mostly” part of an alliance. They enjoy the benefits of the partners in the alliance while still maintaining their autonomy.
Fiji Airways was the first airline to become a oneworld Connect airline earlier this year. In the announcement, oneworld said
“Each oneworld connect partner will need to have a minimum of three oneworld members as its sponsors to be initiated into the program. The initial oneworld sponsors of Fiji Airways will be all four of oneworld’s original founding members – American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.”
Wait a second, the 4 sponsors that brought Fiji Airways into oneworld as a Connect member were American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas. This is surprising because Alaska Airlines partners with these same 4 airlines plus Fiji Airways! This can’t be a coincidence. Not to mention that Alaska Airlines already extends lounge access benefits to eligible American Airlines, Qantas, and British Airways flyers (which is one of the requirements for oneworld Connect members) and those airlines offer the same in reciprocity.
It seems almost certain that this partnership will end up happening. Alaska Airlines has publicly stated during their quarterly investor meetings that they are looking into better international support for elite members, without needing to purchase wide-body aircraft.
The partners that Alaska Airlines has continued to maintain are mostly oneworld airlines. Alaska Airlines’ positive relationship with these alliance members will undoubtedly have an impact at this critical time when Alaska Airlines is looking at potential alliances to join. While joining an alliance can take years. This oneworld Connect membership allows them to get up and running much faster, while leaving the door open for full membership in the future if it works out well.
Oneworld isn’t my first choice for an airline alliance (I would really prefer Star Alliance), I will happily accept this new offering with open arms. Elite status benefits from Alaska Airlines would be extended as I traveled on international flights with alliance members, as well as the possibility for lounge access on long international layovers.
Has Alaska Airlines’ lack of an alliance affected your consideration of their elite status? Which alliance would you like to see them join?
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