Our friends in the airline business always are tweaking things. Sometimes, it means extra bonus miles or offers to new destinations. More often, it means more fees and tighter restrictions.
Alaska Airlines is on a growth spurt, so it's in the midst of changing some of its rules. Every airline has its own rules, but Alaska Airlines has more flights from Anchorage than all the rest combined.
The big news, which came Monday, is that Alaska Airlines will start offering a trimmed-down "basic economy" fare. The actual fare levels have not been released, but Alaska Air wants to roll out the fares in the fall.
United Airlines was the first to introduce what I call an "economy-minus" offer. With these lower rates, travelers on United cannot bring on board a full-size carry-on bag. Only a small personal item is permitted — one that can fit under the seat in front of you. Additionally, no advance seat assignments are provided — you receive your assignment at the counter (usually a middle seat). Further, unless United customers elect to pay more for baggage, they cannot use the online check-in feature at United.com. I imagine that's because the United agent wants to make sure you're not trying to smuggle on a full-size carry-on!
Delta Air Lines waited for a while, then began rolling out its "basic economy" offers. Like United, there's no advance seat assignment permitted. So, if the flight is fully booked, you're likely to end up in a middle seat. Sometimes, it's as little as $5 one-way to "upgrade" to a regular economy fare, which allows for advance seat assignments. Delta does allow its "last class" travelers to bring aboard a full-size carry-on, though.
The initial push for these cheaper options was the competition major airlines face from "ultra low cost carriers" like Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier. On these "ULCC" airlines, everything costs more: seat assignments, full size carry-ons, meals, beverages … the works. Sun Country Airlines is the closest thing Anchorage has to a ULCC, since they charge extra for everything. As a result, they offer the cheapest tickets between Anchorage and Seattle: just $64 one-way starting June 7.
So what will it mean for travelers when Alaska Airlines rolls out its "Saver Fares" this fall? Here's what we know:
1. Saver Fare travelers will be seated at the back of the plane.
2. Saver Fare travelers will be the last to board the aircraft.
3. No upgrades are permitted, even if you're a top-tier frequent flyer. Also, those with Saver Fare tickets will not be able to change or cancel their tickets.
4. Separately, exit row seating now will cost extra, similar to premium class.
Even though the cheapest ticketholders will be restricted to the back of the plane, Alaska Air still allows pre-assigned seats and full-size carry-ons, such as a rolling suitcase. However, the maximum size for those hand-carry suitcases is shrinking: from 24 by 17 by 10 inches to 22 by 14 by 9 inches.
No sample Saver Fare prices were released. But travelers can assume that the lowest rates displayed at AlaskaAir.com or Google Flights or any comparative airfare search will feature the Saver Fare as the "leader price." Like other airlines, Alaska's Saver Fares will be the starting point from which to add fees to complete your trip. If you want the chance at an upgrade to first class or premium seating, you'll have to choose a higher fare.
No changes are planned for the "Club 49" program for Alaska residents, which allows two free checked bags on flights to or from Alaska. Also, Saver Fare travelers will receive full mileage plan credit for flights.
Domestic airlines like Delta, United, Sun Country and Alaska Air are not the only carriers wrestling with ULCC competition. Anchorage's two airlines that fly over the pole to Europe both have stripped-down economy fares.
Icelandair's "Economy Light" between Anchorage and Reykjavik is a new class of service that does not include checked bags or seat assignments. You can take on a full-size carry-on, though, as long as it doesn't weigh more than 22 pounds.
Condor's standard economy class between Anchorage and Frankfurt does not include a pre-reserved seat. Further, only one carry-on is allowed with a maximum weight of 6 kilograms. A free checked bag of up to 20 kilograms also is included.
In addition to trimming the size of a carry-on, Alaska Air is making changes in how it allows for service animals or emotional support animals on the plane. There is a new set of documents required in advance for passengers who require animals in the cabin. Also, Alaska Air published a list of prohibited animals: no goats, reptiles or ferrets. Also, no animals with tusks, horns or hooves. There is, however, a carve-out for miniature horses "that are trained to behave appropriately."