AD Main Menu

Examining Alaska Airlines 'Fairbanks downgrade' -- and a few great deals, too

Scott McMurren

Does whining and complaining really pay off when dealing with an airline? I've given up. But recent changes in the Fairbanks-Anchorage schedule with Alaska set to take effect in March 2014 set off a firestorm of criticism. Ouch. "Outside boarding. "Little planes." "We love Alaska Airlines. Why the downgrade?"

Now comes this: Alaska Airlines is offering a great deal -- $297 roundtrip -- between now and July 10 for nonstop flights from Fairbanks to Portland. And during the summer, all Club 49 members will receive double miles on the route. Will that make a difference? Hmm -- that means it's cheaper to fly to Portland from Fairbanks than it is to fly to Anchorage. Would that get your attention? It certainly got mine.

Of course, the dust-up at the Fairbanks International Airport is all about Alaska's plan to downgrade the service from 737s to the sleek Bombardier Q400s operated by Horizon Air.

The Portland sale? Well, it's sort of like dad bringing home flowers to mom in a Toyota Tercel after selling the family minivan. Domestic spats will surely follow. "Where will the kids sit?"

"But honey, it's great on gas!"

No need to call the cops just yet. Let's see if they can work it out.

Let's compare the equipment:

  • Seating: The 737s are six-abreast. That means two middle seats in each row. The Q400s are four-across. Every seat is an aisle or a window seat.
  • Flight time: There's not much difference between Anchorage and Fairbanks. I've been on 737s with a tailwind when we zipped up to the Golden Heart City in just 37 minutes. But the block time is about 53 minutes. With the Q400, Horizon budgets about 58 minutes. So, it's a wash.
  • Boarding the plane: With the 737, you can use the fancy new Fairbanks and Anchorage airline terminals with the fancy jetways. No need to brave that nasty weather! With the Q400s, you get to walk outside to get on and off the plane. Just like in Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow, Adak, Wrangell and Petersburg.
  • First class seating: On the 737s, there are three or four rows of extra-cushy seats for those lucky enough to score an upgrade or rich enough to buy the extra space. On the Q400, it's very democratic -- an "all coach" configuration.
  • Prices: Honestly, there is no correlation between the fare and the specific equipment offered on a route. I don't expect any price-cutting as a result of this change.
  • Number of flights: The big selling point for the plane is increased flexibility to provide more flights (at a lower operating cost, but not necessarily a lower fare). Indeed, as Alaska comes in with the Q400s, they are adding one two flights per day. That's a good thing.

Carry-on conundrum

Sorry, Fairbanks: Forget about carry-on baggage on the Q400s. Passengers might be able to fit-in a purse, maybe a paperback book (though certainly not "War and Peace" or the "Jerusalem Bible.") 

Alaska's new 737s (especially the -800 and -900 series) are more spacious up above then in the seat, it seems. You really could lie down flat in the overhead bins. Alaska (and the engineers at Boeing) really paid attention to travelers' desperate pleas to go all-carry on. First, it was because bags were lost, stolen or destroyed along the way. Now, it's because airlines charge you every time you want to check a bag (except for Club 49 members).

On the Q400, everything else goes on the cart at the bottom of the air stairs. So, yes, you can drag your bag through security and out onto the breezy ramp. Then onto the cart it goes. And yes, you can wait on arrival for Horizon to bring over the cart. They're pretty quick about it, but it's a completely different experience than hauling your Samsonite, or your kitchen sink, or your Christmas tree on board the aircraft.

The competition: Era Alaska

Era Alaska operates four flights per day between Fairbanks and Anchorage. In fact, Era just painted a couple of its Dash 8 aircraft in the team colors of UAA and UAF. The 37-passenger Dash 8 is a distant cousin of the Q400. Older and slower, the Dash 8 holds half as many people (37). But, since there are less than 50 travelers on the plane, Era Alaska travelers needn't bother with the loathsome scope-or-grope TSA checkpoint. Leave your shoes on. Your underwear, too. Coffee? Juice? Sports drink? Welcome aboard. This is huge.

The fallout? Well, Alaska Airlines certainly listens to Fairbanks travelers. After all, Marilyn Romano, the carrier's regional vice president in Alaska, is from Fairbanks. And she was tasked with spreading the news about this new change, 10 months in advance.

Other airlines with Fairbanks specials

In the meantime, other airlines are worming their way into the Fairbanks market with good deals of their own.

Fairbanks-Los Angeles (LAX) for $381 roundtrip on United Airlines. There are just a few dates available for this special in August. I found it departing Fairbanks on Aug. 18, returning on Aug. 24, 2013.

Fairbanks-Denver for $351 roundtrip on United. This is a nonstop flight -- and the rate is available June 24-29, 2013. United competes with Frontier Airlines on this route. Frontier offers the same fare, traveling June 17-21, 2013. The Fairbanks-Denver route is a real cat-fight!

But between Anchorage and Fairbanks, it's just Alaska Airlines and Era Alaska. Era, of course, is a mileage partner with Alaska Airlines. Nice and cozy, huh? That said, you don't earn Alaska miles on Era's Anchorage-Fairbanks flight. Why not? That's another story.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.