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Flight Review: Alaska 737 in First Class — Maui to San Jose

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TPG Intern Mark Kellman recently visited the Hawaiian island of Maui on TPG’s summer intern trip, first flying Jet Blue’s Even More Space premium-economy product from New York-JFK to LAX, then continuing on to Maui (OGG) in Hawaiian Airlines’ economy. En route home from Maui, he flew to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit his family; this is his experience in Alaska’s first-class product between OGG and San Jose, California (SJC).

Booking the Flight

Fares between Maui (OGG) and San Jose, California (SJC) can range quite a bit in price, so it’s tough to pinpoint an exact fare. In economy, one-way flights start at $200 and head upwards of $400, while first-class fares can run from $500 to more than $1000, each way.

A sample round-trip fare between San Jose and Maui
A sample round-trip fare in March 2016 between San Jose and Maui costs about $1,060.

For my own one-way, first-class flight home to the Bay Area, I paid a relatively inexpensive $499.00 — here’s the breakdown of that fare:

One-way ticket, OGG-SJC in first class: $475.81
Taxes and fees: $23.19
Total: $449.00

I used the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card to earn 3x points on travel expenses, but you could also use the Alaska Airlines Visa card to earn 3x points on an Alaska spend.

Check-In at Maui’s Kahului Airport (OGG)

If you’re flying first-class on Alaska out of Maui, it’s best to be aware of two things: OGG doesn’t have a premier-access check-in line, and Alaska doesn’t give anyone — regardless of their fare class — priority baggage handling. It took me 10 minutes to check in myself and my bags, 20 minutes to go through standard security (OGG’s TSA Precheck security lane was randomly closed for the day), and another 10 minutes to go through the airport’s agriculture inspection checkpoint. 30 minutes after I arrived at OGG, I finally reached my gate… and was very ready to sit down and rest.

Too bad the gate was far from restful. Two Alaska flights were taking off at the same time, and there were people and their baggage just about everywhere. Ah, well.

The waiting area of Alaska Airlines.

I did enjoy the fact that most of Maui’s airport is open-air, allowing me to enjoy a few final moments of tropical air and sunshine, but overall, OGG could use a remodel; everything seemed to be run down and dated, and the food options were limited. You can find kiosks for California Pizza Kitchen, Burger King and Pinkberry yogurt here, but the only sit-down spot is Sammy’s (owned by Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar), which serves bar-friendly food like wings and chili-cheese fries.

Cabin and Seat

My domestic first class seat.
My domestic first-class seat.

Aboard its 737, Alaska’s first-class product is pretty basic. The 16 first-class seats are arranged in four rows in a 2-2 configuration, and the entire cabin has only one dedicated flight attendant; fortunately, mine was quite friendly and helpful. I’m about six feet tall, but had I been any taller, I would’ve felt pretty cramped in my recliner seat, which had 36 inches of pitch and 21 inches of width.

The digital movie play Alaska handed out at the beginning of the flight.
The digital tablet that Alaska handed out at the beginning of the flight.

There were power outlets at every seat but no built-in entertainment screens. Instead, Alaska passes out Toshiba tablets that are pre-loaded with tons of movies, television shows, documentaries, games and magazines — a nice touch when you consider the fact that Delta’s first class between OGG-SEA has no in-flight entertainment whatsoever. Alaska’s tablets are free for first class and $8-$10 in economy, depending on the length of your flight.

In practice, I felt like the tablet was a little cumbersome for the space allowed at my seat, especially during meal service; when the tray table became crowded with an actual meal, it was hard to find a place to safely and comfortably store the tablet. I hope that when Alaska gets around to refurbishing their 737s, they add built-in IFEs.

Catering and Amenities

Beverage service started while we were still on the ground, with warm nuts and Mai Tais; this cocktail is often available on Alaska flights out of Maui.

Meal service began with two roasted shrimp over what tasted like a scoop of mashed potatoes.
Meal service began with two roasted shrimp over (what tasted like) a scoop of mashed potatoes.

Meal service began about 45 minutes into the flight (but it felt like longer to this hungry traveler), and I was surprised that we were served lunch rather than dinner; after all, the flight left OGG at 1:30pm and was scheduled to land at SJC at 9:30pm. I started with a first course of Cajun shrimp on kabocha squash, paired with a warm roll and butter. The shrimp was delicious, but aside from its color, the squash was indiscernible from mashed potatoes.

Korean beef short ribs with veggies and steamed rice
Korean beef short ribs with veggies and steamed rice.

The choice of entrée was either seared Mahi Mahi with a lemon saffron sauce with tomato couscous and grilled zucchini and squash or Korean BBQ beef short ribs with a bulgogi sauce, sautéed peppers and squash with a side of steamed rice; I chose the latter. The short ribs were quite tasty (if a bit fatty) and nicely presented. My neighbor got the Mahi Mahi, which looked quite good, as well. Both entree portions were small, and mine wasn’t especially filling for a lunch/dinner meal meant to tide me over for several hours.

The not so impressive flourless chocolate cake
The not-so-impressive flourless chocolate cake.

The third course, dessert, was the most disappointing. The flourless chocolate cake looked appealing — especially with several pieces of Hawaiian pineapple on top — but it’s chocolate flavor was actually pretty weak, and I could feel the granules of sugar between my teeth as I chewed. Halfway through, I gave up and pushed it aside.

After the main meal service concluded, my flight attendant, Dana, came around with packaged snacks like kettle chips, popcorn and Milano cookies. Although I didn’t take any of these, I felt it was a welcome and unexpected touch.

Bottom Line

Overall, Alaska offers an average domestic first class product — but in terms of service, it excels. From the check-in process to deplaning, everyone I cam into contact with was pleasant, helpful, and seemed happy to be working for Alaska. My flight attendant was especially kind and attentive, checking in on me and my fellow first-class passengers throughout the flight to see if we had what we needed/wanted, and always with a smile. Toward the end of the flight, we even had a nice chat about our mutual love of flying and our travel-related career paths. It’s nice to see people truly enjoy what they’re doing.

I do consider myself a fan of Alaska Airlines and would certainly fly the carrier from Hawaii to the mainland again — but for the money, I’d probably opt to fly economy rather than their underwhelming first class.

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