Alaska's Mileage Program Goes Under the Knife

Guess which airline issued the following statement:

"Our program has always been one of the most generous in the industry, with lower award levels and more robust benefits than any other carrier. With the current state of the industry and impact of fuel prices on our bottom line, we're forced to refine our program to make it viable for our airline while maintaining its strong value for our customers."

The above could have been the preface to any recent announcement that such-and-such airline was adding frequent flyer fees, increasing award levels, and generally devaluing their mileage program.

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As it happens, it's attributed to Steve Jarvis, Alaska Airlines' vice president of marketing, in today's news release detailing a raft of upcoming changes to Alaska's Mileage Plan, few of which will be welcomed by the airline's customers.

Effective November 1, the following program changes will take effect:

1. Award price changes

The 20,000-mile coach award for travel booked online will increase to 25,000 miles, eliminating the signature benefit of Alaska's program.

Most Saver and Peak award levels for coach and first class travel on Alaska and Horizon Air will increase.

The single glimmer of good news: the current Intra-Alaska Award (beginning at 15,000 miles for a round-trip within that state) will be expanded to an Intra-State Award, to include lower-priced awards within the states of Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

2. New award tier

The new Mileage Plan award chart will have three tiers, rather than the current two. (This is an idea first proposed by Delta, although to date that airline still hasn't implemented it.)

The new tier, called Choice Coach (there is no middle tier for first-class awards), "will offer Coach travel at mileage redemption levels below unrestricted awards, but with much greater availability than "Super Saver" levels," according to Alaska.

For domestic awards, then, the new pricing on coach round-trips will be as follows: 25,000 miles for restricted coach; 40,000 for somewhat restricted Choice Coach; and 55,000 for altogether unrestricted.

By contrast, restricted coach awards are currently offered for as little as 20,000 miles, and unrestricted awards can be had for 40,000 miles.

3. Other changes

The next-to-the-last change concerns Alaska's Money and Miles award. While program members will still be able to combine $250 and 15,000 miles for an award ticket, the trip will no longer earn miles.

And lastly, awards redeemed for travel on Alaska's partner airlines will incur a $25 "Partner Award Fee."

While the changes are hardly surprising, they are disappointing. Among mileage program cognoscenti, Alaska's program was known affectionately as the small airline program that could. With the changes, it becomes the program that could but decided not to bother.

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