Flight review: Alaska Airlines first class from Seattle to New York JFK on a Boeing 737-900
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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 Seattle and New York JFK, with only one nonstop flight per day, using the A321neo.
[tpg_rating ticket-class="business" tpg-rating-score="74" ground-experience="17" cabin-seat="19" amens-ife="10" food-bev="15" service="13" pros="Great lounge experience, good service and friendly crew with an on-time arrival." cons="No lie-flat seats in first, limited quantity of food, no amenity kits." /]
As an Alaska Airlines frequent flyer, I'm pretty familiar with the fifth-largest U.S. airline. So far in 2020, before the pandemic put a halt to travel, I have flown 12 segments with Alaska, and this first-class on a Boeing 737-900ER was definitely one of the best among them.
The caveat is that the seats are not competitive in the transcontinental market — American, Delta and JetBlue all offer lie-flat options in premium class — and the meal service could use improvements.
With that in mind, the final score we gave this experience is right on the 74-point average for domestic first class in the U.S.
I flew those 12 segments on Alaska 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.)
This leg, Flight AS628, was on Sunday, February 23, aboard a 737-900ER, the biggest member of the 737 family currently in service. With a scheduled flight time of 5 hours, 20 minutes, it was scheduled to leave Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) at 8 a.m. PT and arrive at New York JFK at 4:20pm ET.
My flight out from JFK to SEA had been on an A321neo, another single-aisle plane commonly found on Alaska's transcon routes. I was not overwhelmed, but Alaska didn't do anything egregious on that flight — not unilke on this return trip. Another 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. Note that Alaska might switch to an all-Boeing fleet and ditch its Airbuses, even though they are pretty new aircraft, for the sake of fleet commonality — which saves on maintenance and training.
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 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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Alaska Airlines has no fewer than three lounges at its Seattle home base, including one that I consider one of the nicest in America — the newly opened (2019) Alaska Airlines flagship lounge in the North Terminal.
There are 51 kiosks at the main check-in area, and four agents were working at a very busy first class/elite line separated from the rest of the check-in area. There's even a special line for Amazon and Microsoft employees. The agent told me it was "rush hour" for tech employees at that time (around 6am on a Sunday). It took about seven minutes total to get helped.
I got through security in six minutes, and was in the first lounge of my grand tour of Alaska lounges at Seattle within five minutes. The D1 lounge is dated and a bit grim, but Wi-Fi speed was fantastic. It's getting a makeover soon.
That flagship lounge is fantastic. I was warmly greeted by a lovely agent named Betsy. There's a ton of seating options with sweeping views of the tarmac and gates. It's heaven for plane-spotting. Lounge Wi-Fi was very good, with speeds of 131 Mbps for download and 121 for uploads on my phone.
I got into the lounge by flying on a paid first- class ticket. You can also buy a day pass for $50. Elite members get four passes to use a year. It's definitely worth using one of those at this lounge.
I had to go to the C gates for my flight to New York, and those are definitely the airport's least passenger friendly. There was plenty of room and plugs at the seating area, but you have to board buses to get to your plane. They started boarding at around 7am, but the bus didn't leave until 7:24am and got crowded.
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This Boeing 737-900ER was registered N268AK, bult in 2017, so it was still a pretty new bird. In Alaska's configuration, the plane features 178 leather Recaro seats including 16 in first class.
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. I measured about a five inch recline, not much if you are trying to get good shut-eye. The seat headrest measures 23 inches across and the seat is 22 inches wide at the waist and thighs. I do prefer the older first-class seats on Alaska's Boeing 737s.
I was in seat 2D. Row 1 at the bulkhead has less legroom since you can't stretch your legs under the seat in front.
I love the Boeing "Sky Interior" on Alaska 737s, which is different from most 737s and is meant to look like the bigger 787. It makes the plane feel roomier, and adds relaxing mood lighting.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="10" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="7" movies="25" tv-shows="6" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="3.02" wifi-2="42.1" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Alaska has no amenity kits in first on transcons. There was a decent blanket wrapped in plastic, but no pillows.
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. Alaska also hands out tablets in first class and free headsets, but they aren't top quality. 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 were 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 screens itself only measured seven inches.
The selection was far better on Wi-Fi with Alaska's streaming entertainment on my laptop, offering 451 movies including 25 new releases, plus 398 TV shows. The kids section offered 18 TV shows and 30 movies. No live TV is available.
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. Unfortunately the Wi-Fi on this flight was painfully slow.
Flight attendants passed out the tablets at 9:30 a.m., and when I needed a new plug for mine, it was brought quickly.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="15" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="1" champagne="Sparkling Wine" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The flight attendants were helpful and eager to please. They offered a pre-departure beverage choice of coffee, orange juice or sparkling wine. For breakfast, the first course of a smoothie was delivered not long after takeoff at 9:33am, and the second course came at 9:40am. The smoothie was berry, and it was runny but good.
The second 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.
The last course of the meal was served at 10:22am. I had preordered the "pulled pork bowl," which looked unappetizing but was tasty.
A snack basket was passed at 11:54am. Drink refills were plentiful.
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.
Overall, it was not enough food for a transcontinental flight in my opinion.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="13" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="No" /]
Service on the flight to JFK was much better than on the flight out. The flight attendants, named Michelle and Jenny, were much friendlier.
We got a menu handed to us, unlike on the flight from JFK. My coat was taken by a flight attendant at 7:45am. There was a welcome-aboard announcement at 7:52 from one of the flight attendants.
We also got a very friendly welcome from the pilot who came out into the cabin and made his announcement in person. Captain Carl told us the flying time would only be 4 hours and 19 minutes, so we must have had a terrific tailwind. He also warned us there was turbulence expected around the Cascade Mountains, so he'd asked the flight attendants to stay seated past 10,000 feet. Turbulence was really minor, it turned out.
The flight was due to take off at 8am, but the boarding doors weren't closed until 8:07 a.m. At 8:16 a fight attendant took meal orders, and called all passengers by their last names, which is always a nice touch.
We didn't end up pushing back from the gate until 8:24 and took off at 8:45. We still landed on time at 4:15pm.
Warm towels were handed out at 9:05a, and the first course of the meal was served beginning at 9:40am.
Our tablets weren't collected until a half-hour before landing, and about 15 minutes before landing we got handed a Seattle chocolate.
I've now flown quite a bit on Alaska Airlines. Most of the time, I've found good service and decent food. This flight didn't blow me away, but it was definitely one of the best segments I've flown on the airline. I don't like first class seats that don't lie-flat or at least have deep reclines. These seats just aren't competitive on some of the longest domestic flights in the United States. That and the lack of a more filling meal service are my big complaints. But, once again, Alaska treated me well as a loyal customer — and that appreciaton is why I'll keep my loyalty to the airline.
All photos by the author.