Flight review: Alaska Airlines first class from New York JFK to Seattle on an A321neo
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Bear in mind that for the foreseeable future, service on board will be greatly reduced to lower the risk of contamination, and that the ground experience — with lounges closed or without food and amenities — will also be very different from what was available, like on this flight, before the pandemic. Alaska Airlines is currently operating a reduced schedule between New York JFK and Seattle, with only one nonstop flight per day, using the A321neo.
[tpg_rating ticket-class="business" tpg-rating-score="70" ground-experience="15" cabin-seat="19" amens-ife="10" food-bev="15" service="11" pros="Great lounge experience. Decent food. On-time." cons="No lie-flat seats in first, limited quantity of food, no amenity kits." /]
I'm an Alaska Airlines frequent flyer, or at least I was before the pandemic grounded us for a while, and I like the airline. But this flight in first class from New York to Seattle was just so-so. The seats are not competitive in the transcontinental market, service was just ok, and while the price was right, the overall experience was only middling. The 70-point final score we gave this experience is slightly below the 74-point average for domestic first class.
This was one of 12 segments I flew on Alaska Airlines in just three weeks as part of a status challenge to keep Gold MVP 75K status for all of 2020. You can read about my status match/challenge and how it all began here. (Since this flight in February, Alaska Airlines announced that it’s extending elite status validity for all 2020 elite members through Dec. 31, 2021.)
One of the flights I took for this challenge, from San Francisco to New York in coach class on a Boeing 737, also left me unimpressed.
For this trip to Seattle, I could have used Alaska MileagePlan miles. The airline uses a distance-based award chart that’s divided into four groups: Hop, Skip, Jump and Leap. Since the transcontinental journey from New York to Seattle clocks in at more than 2,000 miles, you’d need to redeem between 12,500 and 50,000 Alaska miles to book, depending on availability.
You can also book Alaska flights with American AAdvantage miles. Unfortunately, AA now is using dynamic pricing for some flights. A coach transcontinental flight can cost anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 AA miles. Flights priced for September of 2020 showed coach on Alaska for 22,500 miles roundtrip, or first for 45,000.
I will say I was able to find plenty of availability using AA miles for this flight, but keep in mind that my search was done at a time when demand was low.
I found a fairly good deal for a cash fare when I was hunting in early February for my status-challenge trips. I found round-trip flights from JFK to SEA in first class for $1,296. That's $648 each way and is competitive with JetBlue, and among the lowest cash prices you'll find for transcontinental first class.
The journey netted me 14,526 redeemable miles, worth about $261 at current TPG valuations. (We love Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.) That's 2,421 base miles and 4,842 bonus miles each way.
I used my new Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, and got 7x points for airfare purchases (booked directly with the airline), so that’s 9,079 Hilton Honors points which TPG values around $54. I also got 259 Expedia points, though that's only about $2 — and I would hesitate to book with an online travel agency such as Expedia or Orbitz in the future.
The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
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It was a bit of a ghost town when I arrived at Terminal 7 at JFK around 5:15am. The early hour meant little traffic, even a few days before the full effect of the demand slump due to the coronavirus became visible.
There were eight self-service kiosks, although two were not working. There was no line and no waiting for the staffed counters, where three agents were working, including Yoli who checked me in — and was wonderful. She told me Alaska only had five flights from JFK at most before noon during the week, a number that's been greatly reduced during the pandemic. Alaska was running up to 14 flights a day from JFK pre-COVID-19, and it's unclear how many will return.
Related: Complete coverage of Alaska Airlines
The Terminal 7 security situation is not ideal. There is no Clear, and TSA PreCheck is intermittent. The TSA guy who looked over my boarding pass after a nine-minute wait in line told me that it wasn't open yet. About two minutes later, though, they announced a PreCheck line was opening. Chaos ensued, but I eventually got through in about five minutes. I was at the lounge by 5:30am.
The Alaska Airlines lounge at JFK is charming. Located on the mezzanine level of Terminal 7 at JFK, it opened in 2018, and is the first of its kind on the East Coast.
A very nice guy outside the lounge was checking in guests, but I've also seen some really rude people staffing that entrance. Alaska Airlines elites get four lounge passes per year which I would absolutely burn on this lounge. You can also use the lounges if flying first class which got me in this time.
Inside, I found the fireplace burning, and great views of the gates across the tarmac. The barista-staffed bar was unfortunately still closed when I was there, from 5:30 until 6:30am. Starbucks coffee — a Seattle-based company, like Alaska Airlines — was available, though, and the pancake machine that Alaska lounges are famous for was working just fine. There was also bagels, oatmeal with all the fixings and fruit and breads available.
Outside, there was a beautiful view of the dawn — and of the competition, in the form of JetBlue Airbus A321s. Those planes offer on transcon routes, unlike Alaska's own A321s, lie-flat seats and individual monitors for the inflight entertainment.
There are lots of charming separate seating areas in the lounge, with plenty of outlets available, both traditional plugs and USB ports. Don't count on showering, though. There are no showers.
Lounge Wi-Fi was phenomenal, with speeds of 186 Mbps for download and 122 for uploads on my phone. On my laptop it was a bit slower at 56 Mbps for download and 59 for upload. A second test got me to 67 for download and 52 for upload, still plenty fast.
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This was Alaska Airlines flight 7, aboard an Airbus A321neo. That's the newest version of the largest single-aisle Airbus, sporting more fuel-efficient engines. This aircraft was registered N925VA, delivered to Virgin America in December of 2017. It's since undergone a retrofitting from Alaska with its own interiors, after the Virgin America acquisition. While boarding, I caught a glimpse of an identical twin, N922VA, which was parked at the next gate and going to San Francisco.
Boarding began early at 6:40am, according to the order used by most U.S. airlines: those needing help went first, followed by families and then active-duty service members, then first-class passengers and Alaska's MVP elites. Boarding was done by 7:16am. Flight time was scheduled for 5 hours 29 minutes. The flight was about two-thirds full.
The first class cabin is arranged in a 2-2 layout, typical for first on most single-aisle planes. My biggest complaint about it is that the seats only recline, and are really hard to sleep in — while Delta and JetBlue offer lie-flat seats on the same route and other transcons.
The seats are new and, other than the sleep issue, comfortable though I prefer the older first-class seats on Alaska's Boeing 737s. I was at 1A, a bulkhead seat, which actually offers less legroom than the other rows in first and does not have footrests.
In coach, Alaska Airlines A321s have a standard layout of three seats on each side of the single aisle. There are 190 seats on board, in line with the average seating capacity that other airlines use on their A321s with a two-class layout. Alaska puts 16 seats in first and 150 in economy, plus 24 in extra-legroom premium at the front of the coach section.
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Alaska has no amenity kits in first on transcons. There waso a nice blanket wrapped in plastic, but no pillows.
Onboard Wi-Fi was $20 for a flight pass.
Download speed during my first test was a fast 45 Mbps, but upload speed was an atrocious 1.07 Mbps. Later, it was 58 Mbps for download and 2.41 Mbps for upload.
There is no IFE seat-back monitor on the Alaska fleet. There are, however, plugs at every seat so you can bring and charge your own devices.
There were 317 movies available including 37 new releases via Alaska Airlines streaming on my laptop, plus 398 TV shows. The kids section offered 18 TV shows and 30 movies. No live TV is available.
Alaska hands out tablets in first class and free headsets, but they are cheaply made. The tablets are pretty small and there isn’t a lot of content loaded on them. That's just not very competitive on a transcon flight. There was only 25 movies, including new releases, on the tablets, plus six TV shows with three to five episodes each. There were also four kids movies and two shows. That might present a problem for families traveling with children.
The entertainment on offer via Wi-Fi is ample — there are 700 TV shows and movies to choose from — but you are stuck if you don’t have your own device or if the Wi-Fi isn’t working.
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Coffee was served pre-departure.
For breakfast, the first course was plain yogurt with granola and nuts on the side and a garnish of mandarin oranges and some pomegranate seeds. Warmed raisin bread was served with the tray on a separate bread plate.
A bowl that tasted better than it looked came as a separate dish after the first course was cleared away. It was spicy sausage on bed of scrambled eggs with sweet potatoes and a garnish of baby tomatoes. Alaska describes it as "cage-free scrambled eggs, seared sweet potatoes, chicken chorizo sausage, marinated cherry tomatoes, and avocado cream sauce."
Meal service was done by 9:30 a.m., about two hours after takeoff, and trays and dishes fully cleared away by 9:41am.
At 11:32 a flight attendant brought around a snack basket; another round of the snack basket came about two hours before landing. The flight attendant asked often if passengers needed a drink, but overall this was not much food for a nearly six-hour transcontinental flight.
I didn't drink, but there was sparkling wine available — no brand mentioned — as well as several wines from Browne Family Vineyards, a winery based in Walla Walla in Washington state.
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The flight attendants were efficient, but not particularly friendly on this long transcontinental flight. I was thanked for being a Gold 75K member, and the flight attendant did use my last name when asking what I'd like for breakfast. A minor note is that no one offered to hang my coat. The main first-class cabin flight attendant, named Allie, was very efficient. She really warmed up by the end of the flight, but it took a while.
There was a lot of choppiness which delayed the service once we took off. Warm towels were handed out around 8:15 am.
Flight attendants offered drink refills several times during the meal service. I hit the call button for Equal sweetener during the meal service, and it took the flight attendant less than 30 seconds to come and ask what I needed. That efficiency is what I generally experience on Alaska Airlines.
They collected our entertainment devices at 12:55pm. We landed at 1:21 p.m. ET, 38 minutes early, but we then waited for a gate for more than a half-hour and weren't able to deplane until 2:08 p.m. ET.
I've now flown quite a bit on Alaska Airlines. Most of the time, I've found good service and decent food. I have yet to be blown away, but nothing stood out as bad — or especially great. This flight was no different. It was on time, and the Wi-Fi worked well enough for me to get some work done. I'm not a fan of the seats in first class; if I'd been trying to sleep, those seats would have made me grumpy. I do miss lie-flat seats when flying some of the longest domestic flights in the United States. But I appreciate how Alaska Airlines treats loyal customers, and that means I will gladly keep flying with them.
All photos by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.