For the 3 million people who use the Alaska Airlines mileage plan to fly around the country, the program is getting less rewarding.
Starting Nov. 1, the Seattle-based airline's mileage plan members will need to rack up thousands more miles before they can redeem a flight.
The change is a milestone for Alaska Airlines, which consumers have rated as having the best frequent-flier program in the country for the past four years.
"Whatever is going on in the industry is finally catching up to Alaska Airlines," said Tom McKeaney, a senior travel agent at Azumano Travel in Anchorage.
Alaska executives said Monday skyrocketing fuel costs make the changes necessary. They argue that their perks still beat out other airline mileage plans'.
"We definitely want to be the best program out there," said Rick Rasmussen, who runs Alaska's program.
But one perk that set Alaska apart from other carriers for many years -- its 20,000-mile trip award -- will vanish in November.
Alaska created that award -- more generous than other frequent-flier offerings -- 13 years ago when oil prices were below $20 a barrel. Until now, the award hasn't changed, though oil prices are hitting $145 a barrel, said Steve Jarvis, Alaska's vice president of marketing.
Here are some of the mileage plan changes:
Redeeming miles for coach flights to the Lower 48, Canada, Mexico and Hawaii will require at least 5,000 more miles. For example, a trip to the Lower 48 or Canada will cost 25,000 miles instead of 20,000 miles.
The airline has created a new mid-range trip award called "Choice." Coach seats not now available for frequent-flier tickets can be obtained by using more than the standard 25,000 miles.
A new $25 fee will be charged to mileage plan members who book flights on partner airlines.
Users of Alaska's premium Money and Miles program will earn half the miles they can earn now. The Money and Miles program gives frequent business travelers steep discounts on round-trip flights of at least 15,000 miles. Last week the airline said it wouldn't give those passengers any miles for discounted flights, but said it changed that Monday after complaints from customers.
COULD BE WORSE?
Despite the big cutbacks in Alaska's mileage plan, some regional industry analysts say the changes aren't as bad as they could have been.
"Alaska still has a better program than most of the other (airlines)," said Steve Danishek, who owns TMA Inc., a corporate travel agency based in Seattle. He credits Alaska for perks such as its relatively simple process for redeeming miles, and for allowing plan members to rack up miles at local retailers by using an Alaska Airlines credit card.
Lily Sheldon, marketing director at U.S. Travel, an Anchorage-based travel agency, said her firm is relieved that Alaska's mileage plan changes weren't "more significant."
She and some Anchorage travel industry watchers said Alaskans will need to get savvier about using the mileage plan.
For example, passengers may end up with better savings in the long run by waiting longer to use their miles, or by using credit card points to score free rooms at a hotel instead of additional miles.
McKeaney noted another looming concern for mileage plan customers: the plans of Alaska and other airlines to reduce their flights this fall and winter.
The overall squeeze on airline capacity will reduce available seats on Alaska's and its partners' flights, adding to the squeeze on travelers looking for a mileage deal, he said.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.