Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan has announced new award charts to go live in March that are based on distance and now cover all of their partners. Some awards get more expensive, others less expensive, but overall the changes aren’t nearly as significant as I would expect for such a revamp – while moving to clear, consistent pricing across all of their partner airlines which has been a problem in the past. They’re giving us far more notice than usual. And many of their best non-stop awards become cheaper with this change.
Mileage Plan introduced new award charts a year ago and they were kind of a mess. They only showed pricing to and from the U.S. and Canada, and the pricing on the chart wasn’t actually reflective of the prices that their partners charged in many cases.
The airline had removed information about pricing that they used to provide to members on a partner-by-partner basis. Each partner had different prices, but the award chart didn’t reflect this at all. And though Alaska Airlines had joined the oneworld global alliance, they did not offer the ability to mix partners or even travel on all flights offered by their partners.
What’s more, Alaska’s more recent partner adds were generally more expensive than their long-standing partners – which seemed to suggest a future of higher pricing, once old partner contracts got renegotiated.
Here’s the chart they’ve had since last December:
|Contiguous US including Alaska and Canada:
In some cases there were less expensive awards than what this chart showed. For instance, U.S. – India in business class cost just 60,000 miles one way on Japan Airlines in business class, and 70,000 miles one way on Japan Airlines in first class, both lower than the 65,000 and 80,000 miles shown in the chart. And Cathay Pacific awards from the U.S. to South Africa on Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong) were less expensive than what was shown on this chart, too.
The New Chart Solution
Alaska Airlines has moved to a single, distance-based award chart. They’ll calculate the distance of one-way travel on partner airlines and that will determine the cost of the award. There are charts for travel within and across (3) regions.
In general long haul awards involving connections will often get more expensive. The old award pricing generally priced non-stops and connections the same in many cases. Now with distanced based pricing those longer trips will often cost more. And some partner awards, like on Cathay Pacific, go up. While others like El Al may go down as much as 30%.
- They have moved to a ‘real’ unified award chart that shows the actual pricing of awards and applies to each partner. Now ‘starting from’ means the actual saver award price on all partners, not merely the least expensive award offered by one partner. All partners have the same price.
- It becomes possible to book awards to and from all regions and destinations in the world served by their partners. Historically something of a provincial program, they didn’t offer awards for instance within Europe or between Europe and Asia on all of their partners that fly those routes.
- They’ll be introducing the ability to combine more than one partner in an award. Historically a partner award has been for travel on a single partner.
Cathay Pacific First Class
Brett Catlin, Alaska’s Vice President of Loyalty, Alliance and Sales, tells me that they’ve moved away from partner-specific redemption tables. The new chart’s prices will apply to all of their partners, and it’s the price of saver award space on those partners.
In this context ‘starting from’ means that they’ll “continue to offer access to enhanced award inventory at higher rates across many of our partners.” So you can sometimes book space not made available to other airline programs at higher prices.
Later in 2024, he tells me, they’ll make it possible to combine two partners in a single one-way award. Historically a partner award booked through Alaska has allowed only one partner airline (plus Alaska Airlines flights, if desired). All partner routing rules will be the same and there won’t be any differential pricing based on date of travel anymore, either.
And in the past Alaska didn’t allow redemption for travel entirely outside the United States on all of their partners. That’s changing. A couple of wrinkles that Brett shared.
- There will still be a 72 hour rule “for tickets wholly outside the US.” This is a restriction meant to limit fraud – think travel in and out of China booked fraudulently from an account and flown immediately. However, they’re “looking to reevaluate this fraud related restriction.”
- Business class products that aren’t lie flat will be considered premium economy for award pricing (e.g. Icelandair). Note that premium economy awards have been added on nearly all partners, at a 30% increase over economy.
Our goal with these changes is to provide more transparency with a simplified proposition that improves pricing on almost all of our partners. We’re moving from 24 different partner redemption charts and rule sets to only three (3) that are fully standardized by region (Americas, EMEA, Asia-Pacific). Of particular note to many of our most avid members is our desire to continue to provide outsize value with amazing sweet spots and predictable pricing.
While almost all partner redemption rules have been synched up – such as no more requirement to book roundtrip for Korean awards, and no more increased cost of American Airlines awards closer to travel, it hasn’t been synched up at the more restrictive or more expensive price.
Finding New Sweet Spots In The Program
Alaska is touting that “60% of partner nonstop routes in economy class and 64% of routes in business class will start at a lower price point.” That isn’t as good as it sounds. Take it literally, in terms of partner non-stop routes. Connecting flights often mean longer journeys that push trips into more expensive distance bands, in some cases leading to more expensive awards.
The best value from distance-based charts often comes from maxing out distance, for instance flying West Coast – Tokyo to stay within a distance band and avoid going over… and sometimes by booking two awards to get the pricing two shorter distance bands rather than the combined higher-distance one (though this comes with risks if checking bags, misconnecting, etc.)
Mileage Plan is promising that starting next year they will offer regular quarterly award sales on partner redemptions “featuring special pricing of up to 50% off specific partners, routes or
destinations” which will also provide outsized value.
Additionally, stopovers at partner hubs remain as an option with no additional mileage cost on one way redemptions. That means you can still do two stopovers in addition to your destination on a roundtrip. I am validating, but I assume the reference to ‘partner hub’ here may matter (as opposed to a city where a partner operates a fifth freedom route).
I think the major thing here is that I have a lot more confidence in the value proposition of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan going forward. They had different pricing for different partners, that they no longer disclosed and that would change without notice. Now everyone is on the same chart with the same rules.
And perhaps more importantly they’re rolling out this new unified award chart, which is a herculean effort involving bilateral negotiations across their partners, and doing it without major devaluation. My sense was that devaluation was coming, and that the way Alaska had been set up made it opaque. They’re becoming more transparent and the changes honestly aren’t bad, though there are some use cases that are better and others that are worse.
I’ve long found Mileage Plan to offer strong value but the program has sufficiently under-communicated changes and has been insufficiently transparent about those changes that they’ve gotten a ding from me. This looks like a step in the right direction to potentially clean some of that up.
While some price increases, such as for long haul partner redemptions with connecting itineraries, are going to sting I think overall members are going to still get a lot of value out of the program (in many cases more value). Some of the old, costly redemptions like flying Cathay Pacific to Africa via Hong Kong are going up and that funds price reductions with many of their other partners. No change will please everyone. I always look for the sweetest of sweet spots myself. But considering what I expected to happen with the program? Color me relieved!