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American, Alaska Air Frequent-Flyer Partnership Unravels

Chief among the features that have made Alaska Airlines a darling of the frequent-flyer set has been the carrier’s long list of partnerships with other airlines. Alaska has cobbled together marketing tie-ups with more than 15 airlines, serving more than 900 destinations worldwide, creating for itself a global presence. Which is great for members of its Mileage Plan program: They can earn miles and take award flights on Air France, American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, JAL, KLM, Qantas, and several others.

Alaska’s relationship-management focus has been almost exclusively additive, building the partner network gradually over time. The most notable exception has been the dissolution of the Alaska-Delta relationship, as Delta ramped up operations at Seattle, Alaska’s base and primary flight hub. What had been a longstanding and robust link, including reciprocal frequent-flyer participation and code-sharing, was severed completely on May 1, 2017.

On the domestic front, that left Alaska with a similarly comprehensive frequent-flyer and code-share partnership with American. But Alaska’s recent acquisition of Virgin America and its expansion overall have raised questions regarding the viability of that tie-up as well. Those questions proved themselves well founded, as the two carriers today announced a significant winding down of their cooperative marketing efforts, beginning on January 1, 2018.

Alaska’s announcement begins with the statement, “Alaska Airlines is growing.” And American’s alludes to “the evolution of the Alaska Airlines network.” Competitive friction, in other words, as the two carriers’ route networks increasingly overlap.

Hence, the following changes beginning next year:

  • Mileage Plan members will no longer earn miles for domestic American flights not marketed by Alaska; and AAdvantage members will no longer earn miles for Alaska flights not marketed by American. (Note that Mileage Plan members can still earn miles for American’s international flights.)
  • Reciprocal elite benefits discontinued. So elite members of Mileage Plan will no longer receive priority boarding, free bags, or preferred seating on American flights. And vice versa.
  • Mileage Plan award prices for American flights will change. It’s a mixed bag, with some prices increasing while other decrease.

Overall, the changes are a negative for members of both Alaska and American’s programs. But they’re particularly impactful for Mileage Plan members, since that program depends so heavily on just such relationships.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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