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Alaska Airlines just announced significant changes to its first-class upgrade policy. The impact on your upgrades will depend on how you fly the carrier — including the fare classes you purchase and more. From Alaska’s announcement, here’s a quick summary of what’s changing:

Now, let’s dive into the details of each of these.

Change to First-Class Upgrade Order

Your chances of getting a first-class upgrade are changing.

First, we need to understand the changes to the first-class upgrade list. Currently, Alaska clears first-class upgrades based on your elite status level — with time of booking being the tiebreaker. For those familiar with American Airlines upgrades, this is the same as AA’s current upgrade order.

Beginning with bookings as of December 5, 2016, there will be a new, more-important tiebreaker: fare class. Instead of it being more important when you book, it’s going to be more important which fare class you booked. The priority will be the following order: Y, Z, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V, N, K, G, T, R, W.

Elite status is still going to be the #1 priority. That means that MVP Gold 75K elites booking in the least-expensive R class will still be on the upgrade list ahead of MVP Gold elites in the most-expensive Y class. But, MVP Gold members booking into K class the week before the flight will jump a MVP Gold member who booked a G-class flight months in advance.

For those who book far in advance, this is a bummer. No matter which class you booked, you’re currently put on the upgrade list first. But, for last-minute travelers who are booking into a more-expensive fare class, this will definitely impact the odds of getting an upgrade.

Change to Immediate Upgrades

Good news and bad news for elites looking for immediate upgrades.
Good news and bad news for elites looking for immediate upgrades.

Currently MVP elites will get an immediate upgrade to first class when booking certain fare classes. All three elite levels currently get upgraded from Y, S or B classes. MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members also get immediate upgrades from M and H fare classes.

Effective for flights booked on or after December 5, Alaska is dropping two of these immediate upgrades: MVP members won’t get immediately upgraded when booking B fares, and MVP Gold members won’t get immediately upgraded when booking H fares.

However, there’s some good news in here. If you book Z award tickets — which are the most expensive award tickets — you’ll get an immediate upgrade no matter which of the three elite levels you are. As long as there’s upgrade space, you can think of Z awards as another level of first-class awards.

Free Upgrades for Award Travel

Soon you’ll get a chance of upgrading on an award ticket.

Speaking of upgrades on award tickets: Starting December 5, Alaska is going to start allowing first-class upgrades on award tickets. As covered above, Z-class award tickets will earn Alaska elites an immediate upgrade. But that’s not all; even the saver award tickets will become eligible for upgrades.

In the upgrade priority list above, you might have noticed that fare classes Z, N and W were included. These are Alaska’s three award fare classes. If you book a Z-class ticket — and don’t get an immediate upgrade — you’ll get second priority, just behind all elites who didn’t get an immediate upgrade from a full-fare Y booking class. Meanwhile, the mid-tier award level N fares get priority in the middle of the pack. Saver-level W fares get upgraded last, behind all revenue and award tickets.

This is great news for MVP Gold 75K members. Instead of debating between an award flight in the back of the plane or paying more for a first-class award ticket, now you can book that economy saver award and know that you have a decent chance of upgrading to first class. Soon, even with this saver award ticket, you’ll be on the upgrade list ahead of any MVP Gold members.

Premium Class Upgrades

Alaska Airlines Premium Class immediate upgrade chart.
Alaska Airlines Premium Class immediate upgrade chart.

Staring in January 2017, Alaska Airlines is re-classifying its extra legroom seats as Premium Class, similar to what codeshare partner Delta has done with Delta Comfort+. As part of these changes, Alaska is setting up a new upgrade system from economy to Premium Class.

The good news for MVP Gold 75K elites is that all fare classes will grant you an immediate upgrade to Premium Class. Unfortunately, MVP Gold and MVP members have a much shorter list of fares that grant immediate upgrades.

You can still get an extra legroom seat, but you
You can still get an extra legroom seat, but you’re going to have to wait for an upgrade.

Even if you don’t get an immediate upgrade, you’re not out of luck. There’ll be another upgrade list (in addition to first class) for Premium Class. MVP Gold members will start clearing 72 hours prior to departure and MVP members start 48 hours prior to departure.

Falling in Line with American Airlines?

This move seems to be trying to somewhat mirror codeshare partner American Airlines’ new changes. AA is changing its upgrade policy “later in 2017” to allow complimentary upgrades on award tickets — but only for top-tier elites.

At that time, revenue upgrades will be prioritized by the number of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) that the elite member has earned in the last 12 months. Since Alaska doesn’t have an EQD system in place, prioritizing the upgrades by fare class — which is usually an indicator of how much was spent for the ticket — makes sense as a substitute.

Bottom Line

Not sure whether or not to be upset about these changes? Here’s a quick reference. This change is good news for:

  • Last-minute business travelers buying expensive fares — who used to be last on the upgrade list among their status level
  • Award travelers — who didn’t used to have any chance of upgrading

But, this change is bad news for:

  • Alaska elites who book cheap travel further in advance — as they used to get first dibs on upgrades
  • MVP members — who effectively have less of a chance of upgrading on any flight thanks to award tickets now being eligible for upgrades
  • MVP members who booked B fares — as they’ll no longer get an instant upgrade
  • MVP Gold members who booked H fares — as they’ll no longer get an instant upgrade

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