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TPG Reader Max emailed me to ask about choosing a new airline for work travel:
“I recently moved to Seattle, and my new job has me flying almost every week around the US. I’ve read about the battle over SeaTac between Delta and Alaska, but I’m not sure which airline to go with. I’d like to earn miles and elite status, and put myself in position to get upgrades quickly. Do you have any recommendations?”
The past year has seen a heated rivalry between Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines over the Seattle market. Both airlines have been encroaching on one another’s territory, with Alaska adding nonstop service between Seattle and JFK, and Delta planning nonstop service from Seattle to destinations like Boston and Orlando. However, while the competition to attract revenue flyers is fierce, from an award traveler’s perspective I think there’s no contest.
Since Delta instituted revenue-based mileage earning in the SkyMiles program, it’s harder for most flyers to get a strong return on flights. General members earn five miles per dollar spent on airfare, with no bonus awarded for flying in premium cabins (apart from the fact that those flights cost more). That translates to a lower return per mile flown in most cases. For example, a $400 flight from Seattle to Kansas City would earn you 2,000 miles on Delta, but almost 3,000 miles on Alaska. You’d need at least Gold Medallion status (which earns eight miles per dollar) to come out ahead in that case.
Of course, that notion of “coming out ahead” only relates to the number of miles you’d earn, not to their total value. I list SkyMiles at 1.2 cents apiece in my latest monthly valuations, while Alaska Mileage Plan miles are worth 2 cents apiece thanks to great redemption options like Cathay Pacific and Emirates. That means even a Diamond Medallion member (earning 11 SkyMiles per dollar) wouldn’t get as much value as a non-elite flyer on Alaska. Although SkyMiles are far from worthless, pound for pound I’d much rather earn Alaska miles.
As for elite status, Alaska has lower requirements overall and makes earning status easier for those who fly on Alaska metal (i.e., not codeshares). For example, you can earn top-tier MVP 75k status with 75,000 elite-qualifying miles on Alaska flights (or 90,000 total). That’s much less than the 125,000 MQMs you’ll need to earn comparable Diamond Medallion status. Although Delta’s revenue requirement probably won’t be an issue for someone traveling so frequently, it’s one fewer obstacle to worry about with Alaska.
One more important factor to consider is convenience. If you’re going to be traveling nearly every week, you should pick the airline that’s going to offer you the strongest route network and more nonstop flights. Alaska crushes Delta in that respect, offering nonstop service to about three times as many destinations out of Seattle. Granted, some of those are smaller regional airports around Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, but overall you’ll have a good shot at avoiding a layover domestically.
Although I think domestic service on the two airlines is fairly comparable, Alaska offers a more rewarding frequent flyer program, an easier path to elite status and a better route network out of Seattle. I had Medallion status for years, but Alaska is my latest airline crush for good reason!
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