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Delayed and dirty: Review of Alaska Airlines transcon in coach on a Boeing 737-900ER

March 11, 2020
15 min read
Delayed and dirty: Review of Alaska Airlines transcon in coach on a Boeing 737-900ER
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[tpg_rating ticket-class="economy" tpg-rating-score="66" ground-experience="3" cabin-seat="24" amens-ife="25" food-bev="8" service="6" pros="Well-padded seats, multiple beverage services." cons="Unfriendly service. No free meal. No in-seat IFE." /]

It's definitely not as fun sitting in coach as it is sitting in first or business class on a transcontinental flight. But it often makes for a better story.

That was certainly the case on my flight on Alaska Airlines from San Francisco to the East Coast in early March. I was supposed to be flying a Boeing 737-900ER to New York-JFK in extra-legroom Premier Class, but ended up flying to Newark in the regular coach cabin.This is one of the 12 segments I'm flying 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.

Alaska Airlines 737-900ER at SFO. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Alaska Airlines 737-900ER at SFO (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

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Booking

I found a fairly good deal when I was hunting in early February for faraway places to go for my status-challenge trips. I would fly a total of five segments for about $737. The journey took me from JFK to SFO to Portland, Oregon (PDX) to Maui (OGG) to SFO to JFK EWR. It netted me 23,854 miles, worth about $429 at current TPG valuations. (We love Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.) I used my new Hilton Aspire credit card and got 7x points for airfare purchases, so that's about 5,500 Hilton Honors points, which TPG values at $32. (Hey, I'll take it!).

Related: Successful status match from AA EP to Alaska Mileage Plan MVP Gold 75K

I could have used Alaska MileagePlan miles for the trip. The airline uses a distance-based award chart that’s divided into four groups: Hop, Skip, Jump and Leap. Since the transcontinental journey from San Francisco to New York 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. It used to cost a firm 12,500 AA miles for the one-way trip in coach. I will say I was able to find plenty of availability using AA miles for this flight, but my search was done at a time when demand was lower, so YMMV.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="3" tpg-rating-max="5" tail="N492AS" age="4" departure="10" departure-2="39" duration="5" duration-2="17" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

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I began the eastbound legs of my journey at Maui International Aiport. There were five agents at the gates there and six kiosks. I waited about two minutes to get help with my ticket printing and was through fairly quickly. Thanks to TSA PreCheck I was through security in about 10 minutes — but that's where the good part of the OGG ground experience ended. The Maui gates are old and dated, there are not enough seats and not nearly enough outlets. It feels like you've gone back to the 1970s. This airport needs an overhaul stat.

I landed early in SFO and my next flight wasn't for several hours, so I set up shop at the nice big desks by Gate 7, which we were supposed to leave from, and got to work. I really like the San Francisco airport. There's lots of seating and it feels wide open. There are also several work desks with power plugs, which is handy. The benches at the gate feature clusters of four seats with a double outlet between each group of four. Right now, Alaska Airlines shares the terminal with American Airlines, but American is moving into a new terminal this spring.

There were 18 people waiting for an upgrade to first class, but sadly I wasn't among them — I was reviewing coach, and had requested not to be upgraded. (This baffled the agent I spoke with.) I was supposed to be in Seat 6F, the bulkhead at the front of coach, which is considered Premium Class on Alaska. (It's economy with extra legrooom, priority boarding and free alcohol). The flight was relatively full, especially compared to my flight the Friday before from New York to San Francisco which was only about one-third full.

Flight 1022 was scheduled for a 9 a.m. departure. It was a Boeing 737-900ER, tail number N471AS, scheduled to arrive at at JFK at 5:31 p.m. But this wasn't to be.

Alaska Airlines gates at SFO. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Alaska Airlines gates at SFO (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

We were supposed to board at 8:20 a.m., but at 8:21 a.m. they announced that there was a maintenance issue with the plane which would take about five minutes. About 10 minutes after that they said maintenance was on board and advised passengers to stay at the gate. A few minutes later they announced they would have to "restart the engines" and would make further announcements. By 9 a.m. it was looking grim.

I've been down this road before and it usually doesn't end well. Fortunately, the Alaska rebooking counter was nearby so I ran to the not-very-pleasant agents and asked them to switch me to the 10:10 a.m. flight to Newark, which they said they wouldn't do "yet." When I told the lead agent I was a 75K Gold, he softened somewhat while I waited to see what happened with Flight 1022.

Related: Complete coverage of Alaska Airlines

As I feared, Flight 1022 started to have rolling delays. When I saw the new departure time change to 9:30 a.m. and heard the gate agent say they would have an update in 20 minutes, I re-approached the Alaska counter and asked to switch my flight. The agent was clearly annoyed, but eventually switched me to the 10:10 a.m. Newark flight. Lots of grumpy Alaska workers in San Francisco that day.

By this point, I had heard the gate agents say they were issuing vouchers to the people on the delayed JFK flight, and sure enough there was a $12 voucher in my email from Alaska with a QR code attached. I rushed over to a nearby counter to grab some breakfast, though $12 doesn't buy much at SFO. I grabbed a breakfast burrito and headed back to the Newark flight.

Related: What is Alaska Airlines elite status worth in 2020

I ended up flying a Boeing 737-900ER again, but this time I was stuck in Row 12, not in Premium. The gate agent was able to keep an empty middle seat next to me, and was even nice about it. Flight AS590 was on the plane with the tail code N492AS, delivered in 2015. The flight was supposed to be five hours and 18 minutes, but we landed 23 minutes late at about 6:56 p.m.

(My original plane, Flight 1022, eventually took off at 11:38 a.m., two hours and 38 minutes late, and didn't arrive until 8:08 p.m., so by switching flights I saved myself more than an hour.)

Related: Consider jump-starting your travel in 2020 with an airline elite status match or challenge.

After what felt like a slow approach, we landed late but got to the gate quickly.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="24" tpg-rating-max="30" configuration="3" configuration-2="3" width="19" pitch="31" tray="15" tray-2="8" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

Alaska Airlines 737s have a standard coach layout of three seats on each side of a single aisle. I was able to board earlier than most folks so I got a few good pictures of the cabin, which was on the dirty side. Do yourself a favor and don't look under the seat cushions. This is probably true of any plane, but there was a lot of grime inside the seats. You can look at the photo gallery below if you want to be horrified.

(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Coach seating on Alaska Airlines Economy SFO-EWR. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Coach seating on Alaska Airlines economy, SFO to EWR. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

The seats are fairly well-padded and I didn't feel as cramped as I have in coach on many other planes, despite the pretty standard 31 inches of pitch. The seat reclines about five inches. The foot well was partially obstructed by a metal bar protruding into the legroom, giving my feet only about 12 inches of freedom. Overall, however, it wasn't an uncomfortable ride especially considering I wasn't in the Premier Class section.

Each seat has USB and universal AC power ports, which is great. Unfortunately, my laptop plug wouldn't stay in the outlet unless I wedged my knee into the seat in front of me.

Limited foot space on Alaska Airlines coach seat. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Limited foot space on Alaska Airlines coach seat. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Many of the middle seats also have a power box in the footwell area which restricts space for feet or bags.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="25" tpg-rating-max="40" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="43" wifi-2=".1" headphones="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

The Wi-Fi was terrible. It shut down completely about an hour into the flight. It came on again about 20 minutes later, but was super slow. I tested the speeds a couple of times when it was working enough for me to run the test. The first time I got 37 Mbps download speeds and just .27 Mbps for uploads. A second test at 1:17 p.m. showed 53 Mbps for upload and download speeds of .17 Mbps. I found it really hard to work. Alaska says, "We're in the process of upgrading to Gogo 2Ku satellite Wi-Fi service, which will let you stream, browse, and chat from gate departure to gate arrival. The new service made its debut in April 2018, and will expand to most of our Boeing fleet (except 737-700 aircraft) and the entire Airbus fleet by the end of 2020." They are apparently still working out the kinks, since this aircraft was among those fitted with the new system.

So far Alaska has installed the new service on 126 or the 241 aircraft scheduled to get it, according to the airline.

Interestingly, of the nine Alaska flights I've taken in the past four months, this flight's Wi-Fi was the worst. I've generally been able to work just fine, unless you're trying to do a Zoom meeting, which is another story. This is where I think American Airlines genuinely shines, especially compared with Delta, United and Alaska.

Now let me really complain. There is no IFE on the Alaska fleet. There are plugs at every seat so you can bring and charge your own devices. There are 700 TV shows and movies to choose from on the Alaska Airlines Wi-Fi entertainment system, but you are stuck if you don't have your own device or if the system isn't working. You can rent a tablet for the flight, but it costs $10 and they don't hand them out until well after takeoff and collect them as early as 40 minutes before arrival. They also charge $3 for a headset, but if you rent the tablet, you get the cheap earbuds for free. They do let top-tier members use the tablets for free — same in first class. The tablets are pretty small and there isn't a lot of content loaded on them. It's just not very competitive on a transcon flight.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals-purchase="Yes" comp-alcohol="No" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines offer free meals to everyone in coach on their transcontinental flights. But on Alaska, if you are sitting in coach, you'd better bring your wallet. There is only food for purchase and it's in limited quantities, to boot. As an elite on American, I was used to getting free food even when I was flying in economy but when I asked on Alaska if I got a free menu item because I was Gold 75K, the flight attendant laughed and said, "No, I wish." But he did thank me for being an elite member. I handed over my credit card, and got a turkey sandwich on pretzel bread. Not bad, but with a lot of bread for $9.50.

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Coach meal on a SFO to EWR flight with no refills as part of new safety procedures.
Alaska Airlines coach meal on a San Francisco to Newark flight  Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.)

The other options for purchase were a "Kid's Choice Picnic Pack" for $6.50, a "The Beets So Fly Salad by Evergreens" for $9.50, a "Signature Fruit and Cheese Platter" for $8.50, a "Charge Up Protein Platter" for $9.50, a "Mediterranean Tapas Picnic Pack" for $6.50 or a "Northwest Deli Picnic Pack" for $6.50. The cool thing is you can order in advance on the Alaska Airlines app.

The meal service was done by around noon -- pretty quick despite a slow start caused by some chop during takeoff. I asked one of the more senior flight attendants for a drink refill and she snapped at me, "We can't do that." I thought she was being rude, but after talking to a friendlier flight attendant later, I realized they were no longer doing refills because of the coronavirus outbreak.

There was a second beverage service at 1:35 p.m. and another drink at about 2:45 p.m. I'd call three beverage services impressive for a five-hour flight.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="6" tpg-rating-max="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="No" blurb="Decent enough, when I could get some attention. " /]

When I switched from American Airlines, I thought that service would be much better on Delta and Alaska. That has proved true on Delta. On Alaska? Not so much. In general, I've had to deal with a lot of surly flight attendants and gate agents. This flight was no different. Service was perfunctory and borderline rude at times. A few of the flight attendants did manage to smile if I engaged with them, but most of the Alaska employees I encountered didn't seem to want to be there.

I did ring the flight attendant call button at 1:13 p.m. and the same more senior attendant who'd been a little snippy earlier came in about a minute. She was a little nicer and said they'd be coming around again in a "little while." She brought me my own cup at 1:20 p.m. which I thought was nice.

There was a credit card pitch about 45 minutes before we landed. That's also when they collected the entertainment tablets.

Well-Padded seats in coach. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)
Well-padded seats in coach. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Overall impression

Our score on this flight was influenced negatively by the rolling delay, the surly gate agents and the not-so-nice flight attendants. With an overall grade of 66, it ended up below the average of 72 for domestic coach in the U.S.

Still, I would fly Alaska Airlines in coach again. The seats were fairly comfortable and with the right prodding, the flight attendants were eventually helpful. If you are choosing between the major carriers, though, and with all other factors being equal, I'd lean toward Delta or American Airlines where there is free food for everyone in coach.

More reading: New and improved: First look at Alaska's renovated lounge at LAX

Related: Flight review: Alaska Airlines economy from JFK TO SEA

Related: Service with a smile: Alaska Airlines economy (737) from Newark to San Diego

Related: That Alaskan breeze: A review of Alaska's A321Neo in economy from San Francisco to New York.

All photos by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.

Featured image by (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

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  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
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  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

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  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023