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Alaska's Big Jet Order: What it Means for Flyers

Alaska Airlines announced its all-time biggest airplane buy: 50 total new planes, spread among several different variants of Boeing's popular 737 series. This is also one of Boeing's biggest orders this year, and it includes 13 of the largest current generation 737-900 models plus 20 of the even newer generation 737 MAX 8 and 17 737 MAX 9s. Alaska currently flies 30 old-generation 737-400 models, which are well behind the current norms for fuel consumption, so more than half the new order will be to replace the older guzzlers. The others will support expansion.

This order should interest consumers for two reasons:

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  • The upside is that all of the new planes will use less fuel per seat mile than most of Alaska's current fleet, and the new MAX series will be around 15 percent more fuel efficient. That means Alaska and the other airlines that order these planes will have less pressure to raise fares.
  • The downside is that both Airbus and Boeing decided to build new generations of their 320 and 737 series with new engines, while keeping the same basic airframes. At one point, both had considered starting over completely with clean-sheet designs, but they decided that tweaking the older designs would be cheaper and faster. That means you'll remain stuffed into seats too narrow to accommodate you with any comfort for the foreseeable future.

For those of you who don't live in the West, this buy serves notice that Alaska has quietly become a major player. From its Seattle hub, the airline flies up the coast to Alaska and Western Canada, down the coast to California and Mexico, out to Hawaii, and across the country to 16 big cities in the Midwest and East. It also serves many of these areas from Portland and Los Angeles. Alaska doesn't belong to any alliances, but it code shares with several big domestic and international airlines. It's profitable and well managed, and has developed a loyal customer following.

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