Alaska Appears to be Quietly Eliminating Some First Class Upgrades
Alaska Airlines has always been a very customer centric company, with some of the most popular elite benefits for their most frequent fliers. During the pandemic, they’ve been very flexible with changes, credits, cancellations, and the like.
One incredibly popular benefit for MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75k members are the Gold Guest Upgrades. On any flight with upgrade space available, you can redeem one of these codes for an instant upgrade into first class. It would appear now that these upgrades have been all but eliminated, removing the opportunity for Alaska Airline’s most loyal travelers to secure a first class seat.
Gold Guest Upgrades Basics
Every year when you qualify for MVP Gold status, by flying 40,000+ miles with Alaska Airlines, you get four codes that you can use instantly at time of booking to move from economy up to first class.
Hit MVP Gold 75k by flying, you guessed it, 75,000 miles with Alaska Airlines, and you’ll earn another four instant upgrades.
The only caveat is that you have to find a flight with “U” space, or upgradeable space, available. Typically these seats are available on almost every flight, or at least through almost every destination, that Alaska Airlines serves.
Try to score an upgrade on Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas, New Years, etc, and you’re not going to have any luck. But typically a random Tuesday in March would have no issues securing a space, especially if you booked 6/7/8/9 months ahead of your desired trip.
The Upgrade Controversy
I was trying to find out why in the world I couldn’t use our upgrades on a recent trip, and I came across something strange.
I couldn’t find a single flight between Seattle and San Francisco, CA that had upgrade space. Not just that there weren’t seats available in First Class for sale, but they were wholesale eliminating the first class upgrade bucket.
It was impossible.
Thinking that it could be a popular route, I checked Portland, Austin, Cabo San Lucas, even San Jose, CA. Nothing was showing up. Zero flights available for upgrades. Let’s be clear, Alaska Airlines would sell you a seat in first class, but you weren’t going to get it for free.
So what’s a guy to do? Head to Twitter, of course.
Cmon now @AlaskaAir you’ve gotta start playing fair. Not a single… Seat… On any flight. Anywhere. Has “U” upgrade space. GGU are still expiring at the end of the year and revenue isn’t releasing space. We should be able to use our #Gold75k benefits.
— No Mas Coach (@NoMasCoach) August 16, 2020
The response? Well, let’s just say that it was kinda-sorta what I expected. Typical Corporate Speak with no real meat:
I’m sorry about that. Safety is our number one priority, and due to the current pandemic we are all in, upgrade availability may not be offered as often as before to help with social distancing. We truly appreciate your understanding in all this. -Dalce
— Alaska Airlines (@AlaskaAir) August 16, 2020
What was the Corporate Response?
Much what you would expect. We reached out to Alaska’s media liaison for more context and information, and we got two responses. The first:
… it has to do with COVID. As you know, safety of our employees and our guests is always our #1 priority, and we’re currently limiting the number of guests on our flights and blocking seats (currently through October 31st) to better allow for personal distancing in flight. To ensure we’re better able to distance guests in flight, temporary changes have been inplemented…”
Now, both you and I know that allowing people to upgrade before the flight has absolutely zero to do with safety and security, nor does limiting seats. If you have 8 seats to sell in first class instead of the normal 16, whether you get money or get it for free via upgrades, how you got IN the seat doesn’t matter for the safety and security of your employees and guests.
We responded in kind, letting them know that by not allowing 75k members to use a duly earned benefit by wiping out upgrade space, doesn’t align with safety. Effectively, you’re eliminating a benefit that tens of thousands of members have earned and should have the expectation to be able to use. I’d love to know the difference between allowing someone to upgrade with a certificate and selling a seat, for safety reasons.
Also, since the certificates have an expiration date (12/31/2020) would Alaska be extending the dates until 2021, since they’re removing their usefulness?
… while we have one of the most generous upgrade policies in the industry, it isn’t viable for us to allocate 100% of seats for upgrades. With fewer seats available and our current demand patterns that aren’t the norm, we need to ensure that we have enough seats for sale to keep that appropriate balance and therefore only open up space closer in…”
With regards to the extension of expiration:
… we’re currently evaluating options for how to handle unused guest upgrade certificates, knowing that guests aren’t able to use them all at this time.
Note, we didn’t suggest that they should allocate 100% of their space to awards, but they’re also aware that they ARE wholesale eliminating upgrades at time of booking.
Why Close-In doesn’t work
While Alaska is stating that they are allowing upgrades closer to the time of departure, that doesn’t work for these certificates. In order to use them, you must book a certain fare class, which means you’re paying more. When it comes time to use those upgrades, if you haven’t paid the correct fare, you can’t use them. You are being required to pay more for the HOPE and CHANCE to upgrade.
Obviously, this is not the spirit that Alaska intended for their upgrade certificates.
What’s my 20-story view on this
I love Alaska Airlines, and I love flying on Alaska Airlines. They’re a 100% customer focused airline and have always gone above and beyond for my family. They’ve been very accommodating during the covid-19 crisis and have very customer friendly approaches to all things, including extension of certificates, changes, fee waivers, and more.
However, this is a pure money grab for the airline. They’re saying “we’re rather get $200 from a ticket than give an upgrade to a client who flew well over 75,000 miles with us last year.” They’re also not currently with any plan in place to allow us to extend those upgrades into next year. That’s the part that stings the most for me.
We’re still Alaska loyalists, and we’re still going to fly with them, a lot. But knowing that we’re not going to have to pay for first class or chance it at the gate makes our flying experience a little more tainted.