Dumped by Alaska

No comments

It’s been a while since my last ugly breakup, and I’m sorry to say the clock reset on August 29th. Yes, my partner of a year, who would often treat me to sweet surprises and gifts, who carried me between destinations, and who always responded to my tweets, dumped me; in an email no less!

Don’t worry, my wife and I are as happy as ever.

Alaska Airlines discontinued their service between SFO and BNA effective November 1, 2019. As you may be aware, I fly around 40 of these segments annually so the news was horrific. Since this route represented a majority of my air travel, losing the route was devastating to both my elite status and upcoming itineraries.

The Route Was Doomed

Having flown 28 segments in or out of Nashville in the last year, I have been cognizant of the shortcomings. The airport has ONE gate for Alaska Airlines. It’s B8 in case you’re curious; a single gate that serves any Alaska flight in or out of Nashville. In order to staff this gate, Alaska bids the job out to the lowest priced competitor in the airport (likely a Delta or American employee) who dons the Alaska uniform and poses as an employee at the gate.

On all but two of my trips, there was a delay at some point in Nashville; either at the gate or on the tarmac. It was horrendous. When the plane wasn’t performing optimally, they had to call a third-party maintenance service who would drive from an offsite location to the airport without an ETA; Alaska did not have any maintenance or engineering presence at BNA.

Elite benefits (such as a priority boarding lane) weren’t recognized either. And in addition to that, the SFO to BNA journey was served by the Virgin acquisition on outdated Airbuses staffed by disgruntled former-Virgin employees who were less than interested in fulfilling the Alaska customer service model.

Needless to say, I was disappointed, but not surprised by the news that Alaska had given up on the route.

Out With the Bad

In retrospect, there are many things I will not miss about Alaska Airlines:

  • Not releasing certain seats for first class upgrades until ten minutes before boarding in an effort to gain last minute sales
  • Restrictive use of guest upgrades to the point that they were unusable
  • Not allowing travelers to earn reward miles on reward flights
  • Not having a competitive credit card in the market for customers
  • Refunding flights to expiring credits rather than a true refund back to the card used

The Horror of the Aftermath

When Alaska discontinued my route, I was holding tickets for 12 upcoming trips. I won’t get into the exhausting details here, but I had to fight with Alaska Airlines in order to receive a refund for these flights. Their first solution was to convert my (initially nonstop) routes to 15 hour flights with connections through another city; their follow up offer was to issue refunds in the form of account credits for future Alaska flights. Obviously, neither of these were appropriate and it took nearly three months, and over 100 hours on the phone, before I eventually received my refunds in full. This was an incredibly eye-opening and disappointing customer experience where staff hid behind “policy” to set barriers and delays to issuing a refund for a service they cancelled. Lesson learned: Don’t buy too far in advance.

Saved by Status Matching

If this is a new term for you, Status Matching is a program offered by most airlines as a tool to recruit new loyal customers by stealing them away from their current airline. Since earning elite status has a running start associated with it, a status match allows you to jump in with the equivalent level of elite membership that you carried with your old airline. If you complete a qualifying number of trips with your new airline in the “challenge period,” you get to keep the elite status through the following year. It’s a great deal when you’re looking to make a change, and a perk that kept me from being too devastated by my recent breakup.

Selecting an Airline

Because my frequent trips are short in duration, I prioritize nonstop travel above all else. Wasting 3-6 hours waiting for a connecting flight not only wastes valuable time during a short trip, it increases the risk of a missed flight. Since nonstop flights were a priority for me, my alternate choices were slim: United was now the only airline that flew nonstop between SFO and BNA. Decision made.

United offers a status match promotion that allowed me to become Premier Gold immediately upon signup (comparable to MVP Gold with Alaska Airlines)

Whether they’re killing animals or dragging a doctor off his flight, United has certainly had some PR nightmares in recent years. But when your pickings are slim, you hope for the best. I figured worst case, United also has a reputation for handsome settlements so at least I’ll be rewarded for my efforts.

The First Saga

Last month, United announced that they were overhauling their mileage rewards program which will now be based on how much a customer spends, rather than how much they fly. In the long run, this shouldn’t impact me terribly since I was aiming for a mid-range status anyway, but it would have certainly thwarted my ability to hit Platinum with them. The only immediate downside is that as a result of this overhaul, they have paused the status match program until they finalize the details; the match program is expected to kickoff again in January. In the meantime, I have two or three flights to enjoy near the restrooms.

Earn Rate

Thanks to the American Express Platinum Card, I still earn 10% back on all of my airline purchases. This detail is one of the key reasons I retain the card and get so much value from it. In addition, it provides gold status with Hilton and Marriott, several annual credits, and insurance.