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Alaska isn’t one of the largest domestic carriers, but it does have one of the most rewarding loyalty programs. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen examines how its relationships with American and Delta impact the value of all three airlines for award travelers.

The travel industry has seen many strange bedfellows over the years. Marriott and Ikea seemed like an odd pairing, though their Moxy brand is soon coming to the US. You also may have been scratching your head at the partnership between LSG Sky Chefs and AllYouNeed.com, which married in-flight dining and grocery delivery service. And even though American partners with two of the three big Middle Eastern carriers (Etihad and Qatar), that hasn’t stopped CEO Doug Parker from joining his Delta and United counterparts and challenging these carriers’ expansion efforts.

Alaska Airlines is planning to launch service between Seattle and New York (JFK).
Alaska partners with both American and Delta, but is that sustainable?

However, today’s post focuses on an even stranger relationship, one that involves a trio of characters and more drama than the Kardashian family: Alaska Airlines and its partnerships with both Delta and American. How did it come to pass that this upstart, Seattle-based airline (and one of TPG’s crushes) has agreements in place with two of the three major carriers in the US? And how long will Alaska’s agreements with these two legacy carriers last?

It seems hard to believe that just a few years ago, Alaska was bragging about its relationship with Delta and offering members a 2,500-mile rebate for redeeming Mileage Plan miles on Delta-operated flights. This partnership was a win-win for travelers. Alaska flyers got access to Delta’s extensive international route network, while Delta flyers could utilize Alaska’s wide variety of West Coast routes. As a Diamond/Platinum Medallion member for a number of years with Delta, I took advantage of this partnership to earn full MQMs on several routes:

  • Orlando – Seattle (non-stop on Alaska)
  • Orlando – Los Angeles – Anchorage (Delta connecting to Alaska)
  • Fairbanks – Anchorage – Chicago (both flights on Alaska)

Delta too was touting the benefits of this partnership as recently as 2012, by improving transcontinental and international service and expanding its relationship with Alaska.

Delta's push into Seattle is a direct challenge to Alaska's majority market share.
Delta’s push into Seattle is a direct challenge to Alaska’s majority market share. Photo courtesy of Port of Seattle (Don Wilson, photographer).

At some point, however, Delta realized that it was missing out on an opportunity to create its own mini-hub in Seattle. With several long-haul international flights offered to Europe and Asia (a list that now includes London, Beijing, and Hong Kong), Delta decided that it was undermining its own profitability by allowing Alaska to provide the domestic feed traffic for those lucrative routes. The expansion started out small, with non-stop flights (and double miles) to Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but the new routes and bonuses escalated quickly, with Alaska responding at just about every turn:

  1. Alaska announced a promotion offering double elite qualifying miles from Seattle to select cities (including LAS, SFO, and LAX).
  2. Delta then expanded its bonus, with double miles and MQMs on these routes plus other new ones to Anchorage, Portland, and San Diego.
  3. Delta then took it a step further, announcing a year-long double miles and MQMs bonus for Washington residents on all flights to or from Seattle.
  4. Alaska responded with a double mile promotion of its own.
  5. Late last year, Delta announced a ton of new routes out of Seattle and added Porsche service, leading one TPG reader to ask whether Alaska can compete.
  6. Not to be outdone, Alaska recently announced new service from Seattle to New York-JFK, and began going after Delta’s Salt Lake City hub by offering MVP status after a single round-trip flight and double miles on all its nonstop flights to or from SLC.
Alaska MVP
Alaska has taken a page out of Delta’s books by wooing hub captives in Salt Lake City.

These new routes and promotions are clearly trying to win the loyalty of customers in both Seattle and Salt Lake City, but the airlines have also taken steps to discourage travelers from crediting flights to one another’s frequent flyer program. Delta launched the first attack by downgrading benefits for MVP members traveling on Delta-operated flights. Alaska responded with its 2015 Mileage Plan program, which offers significantly fewer miles when you credit Delta flights to your Alaska account. The latest move came from Delta, which downgraded Alaska to a Group 4 partner (meaning no MQDs) and decreased the miles you earn when crediting certain Alaska fares to your SkyMiles account.

Throughout all of these moves, the partnership with American Airlines has remained essentially unchanged. However, you might find it surprising that despite the growing animosity and competition between Alaska and Delta, the reciprocal elite benefits are still better between them than they are between Alaska and American!

American Airlines plane on ground
Alaska elite flyers can enjoy reciprocal benefits on American flights, but not complimentary upgrades.

Here’s a table with a breakdown of benefits for Alaska elites on both Delta and American flights:

 

Traveling on Delta

Traveling on American

Bonus Miles

Yes

Yes

Preferred Seating

Yes

Yes

Free or Discounted Comfort +/Main Cabin Extra Seats

No

Yes

Baggage Fee Waiver

No

Yes

Sky Priority/Priority Access

No

Yes

Priority Check-in

Yes

Yes

Priority Security

No

Yes

Priority Boarding

Yes

Yes

Complimentary Upgrades

Yes

No

And here’s a similar chart for Delta and American elite members traveling on Alaska:

 

Delta Elites

American Elites

Bonus Miles

Yes

Yes

Preferred Seating

Yes

Yes

Baggage Fee Waiver

No

Yes

Priority Check-in

Yes

Yes

Priority Security

No

Yes

Priority Boarding

Yes

Yes

Complimentary Upgrades

Yes

No

Lounge Access (when connecting to/from an international flight)

Yes

No

American appears to be the more desirable partner at first glance, with more reciprocal benefits offered to Alaska elites on American flights and vice versa. However, the huge difference (and likely a benefit that frequent travelers value highly) is the upgrade process. Delta elites can get upgraded for free on Alaska flights, and Alaska elites can get upgraded for free on Delta flights. Sure, partner elites have very low upgrade priority on both Delta and Alaska, but depending on the route, you may find yourself riding up front.

This seems like a shockingly disjointed policy. How can two airlines locked in a heated battle for dominance in Seattle (who have significantly cut back on reciprocal benefits) still offer one of the most coveted perks out there?

Enjoy more flight options throughout the United States with Alaska Airlines.
Will the battle for Seattle lead to an end of Alaska’s partnership with Delta?

In my opinion, the clock is ticking on this benefit (and the Delta/Alaska partnership in general), and I have two bold predictions for the end of 2015:

  1. Delta and Alaska will not offer complimentary reciprocal upgrades in 2016
  2. Alaska and American will begin offering complimentary reciprocal upgrades in 2016

Logically, this makes a lot of sense. The merger between American and US Airways is moving full-steam ahead, with the integration of the AAdvantage and Dividend Miles programs and the two carriers receiving a single operating certificate. Later this year they’re expected to merge reservations systems, whereby American will become the operating carrier for all flights in the combined worldwide network. This will significantly increase the routes available for Alaska flyers.

Meanwhile, Delta will continue pushing into Seattle, as it is trying to secure additional gates to expand capacity and further challenge Alaska’s majority share. However, with the destruction of the SkyMiles program in full swing and American very deliberately keeping a traditional program for at least the next year, it makes a lot of sense for Alaska to align more closely with what will soon be the largest airline in the world.

As always, only time will tell if these predictions come true, but I think we can all agree that Alaska’s relationship with Delta is on the rocks. We’ll just have to wait and see if this translates to an expanded partnership with American!

Let’s hear what you think! Answer the poll questions about the future of these partnerships, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

[poll id=”67″]

[poll id=”68″]

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