Travel

New planes and new carriers make for a jet-sampling trip out of Alaska

Last week I flew on two new planes, one not-too-old plane, one old-ish plane and a brand new airline.

Most of my trips are on Alaska Airlines — and they do a great job.

But when other airlines fly into Anchorage, fares go down. This summer has been particularly robust in the low fare department, as Delta, American and United spar with Alaska to fill up their planes. Also, two ultra-low-cost carriers, Sun Country Airlines and Frontier Airlines, put additional downward pressure on rates.

“Family business” was the excuse I needed to try out some of the new service.

Because fares were creeping up in Anchorage, I flew United Airlines from Anchorage to Fairbanks to take advantage of better rates. Tickets were cheap: $39-$49 one-way. The daily flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks, along with the low rates, will continue until Oct. 7.

Although United’s coach tickets are cheap, you have to pay $35 extra to check a bag. Or, do what we did: fly first class for $59-$69 one-way. With the comfy seat up front, you get two free checked bags.

United’s new plane had some mood lighting — but the inside is very similar to every other 737s I’ve flown. For the airlines, the difference is fuel efficiency. The 737 MAX 9 purportedly burns about 11% less fuel than the older 737 models.

United’s late-afternoon flight to Fairbanks lined up nicely with American Airlines’ late-evening nonstops from Fairbanks to the Midwest (Chicago and Dallas).

Because we were switching airlines, we had to claim our bags in Fairbanks, re-check them with American and go through TSA screening one more time.

It’s times like these that the new Alaska-American agreements come in to play. As an elite-level Alaska Air traveler (MVP), you can check two free bags on American Airlines.

There are three reasons we chose American Airlines for this leg of our journey. First, Alaska Airlines doesn’t fly to Richmond, Virginia. Second, American’s tickets from Fairbanks (about $170 each way) were much cheaper than other carriers. Third, as an elite Alaska Airlines traveler (MVP Gold), I was able to get seats in the “premium” section with more legroom, at no additional charge. Also, Alaska frequent flyers earn miles on American’s flights — but the number of miles earned depends on how much you paid for your ticket. Most of the cheap tickets will earn you 25% of actual miles flown.

American’s nonstops from Fairbanks operate through Oct. 6. But the airline will continue flying Anchorage-Dallas nonstop through Jan. 3, 2022.

Flying on the new Airbus A321neo was a bonus. I wanted to fly from Anchorage on one of American’s 787s, but the cost was twice as much.

American’s overnight nonstop from Fairbanks to Chicago was busy. But the aircraft still had the new-plane smell. The seats were pretty skinny, and there was plenty of mood lighting while we were boarding. The overhead bins are huge and can accommodate the largest bags they will let you drag onto the plane.

American’s flight attendants made several announcements saying it was a completely full flight. However, I noticed at least two empty seats: one in first class and one next to me! Another bonus.

Even though American says the flight will last more than six hours, there’s no food service aside from a cookie and some mini-pretzels. There’s no booze being served either, at least not in the cheap seats.

Our connecting flight from Chicago to Richmond originally was scheduled to be another Airbus (A320neo). But we ended up on a small regional jet (E-145 by Embraer). This was the “old-ish” plane. It was a 1x2 configuration and was, well, cramped. Still, the plane got to Richmond on time.

I downloaded American’s app, which gave me directions from our arriving gate at O’Hare to our connecting flight to Richmond.

The next flight on the itinerary was on a new airline called Breeze.

Breeze was founded by David Neeleman, the same guy who ran Morris Air and who later started JetBlue Airways. Neeleman also helped start WestJet in Canada and Azul Airlines in Brazil.

Breeze’s focus is on secondary markets, providing nonstop service with a fleet of E-195 regional jets (leased from Azul). These smaller jets feature 2x2 seating. The overhead bins aren’t quite as big as the 737s or Airbus jets.

From Richmond, Breeze flies to three destinations: Charleston, Tampa and New Orleans. We were headed to New Orleans. Our tickets in the front of the plane were $99 each, which included two free checked bags. The cheapest tickets are available for as little as $44 each way, but you’ll pay extra for checked bags. The first several rows of the E-195 feature nicer seats and more legroom. Back in the cheap seats, there was about 31 inches of legroom, which is more generous than American, United or Spirit Airlines — three competitors on the route. Breeze offers the only nonstop service.

Breeze is saving its first-class service for its all-new Airbus A220 fleet. The nice seats are configured 2x2 up front, but it’s just five across (2x3) in the back of the plane.

On the E-195s, there’s no power, no Wi-Fi and no seatback entertainment. But we were in the air for just two hours. Snacks consisted of potato chips and water.

After arrival in New Orleans, it was a long walk to baggage claim — about a half-mile. By the time we got there, our bags had arrived!

Not every traveler relishes the chance to fly on a bunch of different planes on different airlines. But Anchorage is getting more airlines — and it’s fun to see the carriers bringing in some new jets.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the program by which travelers could receive two free bags on American Airlines. It is elite-level Alaska Air traveler (MVP).

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