Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Joy of Flying on Alaska Airlines

An Alaska Airlines 737-900 Series jet (Image downloaded from Planespotter.net)

My first flight in a commercial aircraft was from Minneapolis to St. Louis on October 31, 1977.  The flight was aboard an Ozark Airlines DC-9 and I was in an aisle seat because I was petrified to look out the window.  I remember taking the runway in MSP thinking my time had come.  The engines began to howl, I closed my eyes, and waited for the inevitable to happen but it never did.  One hour 15 minutes later we landed in STL and I have to admit that at a couple of moments during the flight I opened my eyes, leaned across the person next to me, and peered out the window.

What I saw in those brief moments convinced me that if I had to fly and I had to die while flying, at least I should be by a window when it happens.  Flight became a geography lesson after I began sitting by the window and now that I have logged 3,126 individual flight segments on commercial flights on top of countless flights in a Cessna 172 looking for whooping cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska (a flight segment is one take off and one landing - MSP-STL was one segment) I can't imagine myself sitting anywhere other than by the window.

The first time I ever flew on Alaska Airlines it was a 129 mile jaunt from Portland to Seattle in 1986. I was in Portland for a meeting, had never been to Seattle, and had never flown on Alaska Airlines. The airfare was too cheap to pass up so I did a day trip to SEA and in the process became hooked on Alaska Airlines.  Even in the few minutes it took to fly from PDX-SEA I could tell there was something different about Alaska Airlines and this was in the days when other airlines like United, American, Delta, Northwest and Continental actually cared about customer service.

When I lived in Washington DC I regularly flew on Alaska to either Los Angeles or to Seattle (and on to Alaska) and never once had an experience on the airline that was anything less than wonderful. Just last week I completed my 17th trip to Alaska and now 14 of those 17 trips have been in part or entirely on Alaska Airlines.  There simply is no better way to fly north than with Yukon Jack on the tail of your plane.

Among the 3,126 flight segments I have taken only 149 of them have been on Alaska Airlines and to me that's a shame. In the current cutthroat climate of air travel, where customers luggage is destroyed and no responsibility is taken (United), where customers are beaten and dragged from planes (United), airport employees assault elderly customers (United), flight attendants berate and threaten passengers for asking questions onboard (American), where an airline seems to have zero concept of what on-time is supposed to mean (Delta), and where the amount of space between rows of seats is so minute you pray for the flight to crash just to put yourself out of your self-imposed misery (Spirit), there is a certain joy that comes from flying on Alaska.   Only it and JetBlue know, understand, appreciate, and practice the concept of customer service on every flight.

On Alaska Airlines if there is even a minor delay passengers are told "it will take X minutes before we can go" - you're never told "It will be only a few seconds" that later becomes an hour.  On Alaska Airlines you are offered healthy food (even though like every other airline you have to pay for it unless you're in First Class).  Only Alaska Airlines guarantees that you will be reconnected with your luggage in 20 minutes or less after landing, or you are reimbursed for your wait. And, most importantly, only on Alaska Airlines do the flight attendants (and occasionally even the pilot) personally thank each passenger for flying their airline as you deplane at your destination!  THAT is customer service!

On June 6 2017, I traveled from Seattle to Anchorage aboard Alaska Airlines flight 87.  We left on time, arrived in Anchorage early and the view out the starboard window was spectacular (hint - when flying north from SEA you ALWAYS want a window on the F side of the plane. Always)

Route of AS 87, SEA-ANC on June 6 2017

Several days later I flew from ANC to Kotzebue on Alaska flight 153.  And even though I was flying on a Mileage Plane award ticket, Alaska let me upgrade to First Class for only $53.00.  No other airline I can think of would allow that.

Route of AS 153, ANC-OTZ on June 12 2017

The window seat view of the tundra from AS 153 on approach to the OTZ airport was spectacular.  That is Kobuk National Park on the northern horizon

After a too-short visit to Kotzebue I returned to Anchorage on Alaska 154 where I connected to AS 55 bound for Barrow

Route of AS 154, OTZ-ANC on June 13 2017

Route of AS 55, ANC to BRW on June 13  2017

The flight north aboard AS 55 took us by the summit of Mount Denali.  I remember once flying from ANC-FAI on an Alaska flight in May 1989.  The entire mountain was completely clear and the pilot received permission to divert from his planned route and we did a complete 360 degree circumnavigation of The Mountain.  Of course that would never happen today but it did back then and I think only Alaska Airlines would offer its passengers such a spectacular experience.

13,000 feet above the summit of Mount Denali from a port window aboard AS 55, June 13, 2017

Final approach into BRW afforded those of us in a window seat spectacular views of the ice still smothering the Arctic Ocean just offshore from the town

Alaska Airlines plunked down at Wiley Post/Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Barrow a few minutes early on June 13.  As I exited the plane into the 36 degree F temperature, the flight attendant pointed out that I was wearing shorts.  I said "I live in Florida; I don't own long pants." She chuckled and said "That explains everything."

After another too short visit, this time in Barrow, I traveled from Barrow to Fairbanks aboard AS 55 on June 14, 2017. When we left Barrow the air temperature was 33 degrees. One hour 10 minutes later we landed in Fairbanks and the air temperature was 72.  The change made me feel like I had stepped off a plane back home in the heat and humidity of Florida!

The flight from Barrow to Fairbanks in brilliant sunlight afforded great views of the seemingly endless wetlands that dot the North Slope of Alaska

Route of AS 55 from BRW-FAI on June 14 2017

I spent a little more than 1 1/2 days in Fairbanks visiting the Stampede Road/Trail made famous in Jon Krakauer's book "Into The Wild", saw a moose and a gray wolf crossing the Parks Highway, drank some beer at the three most northerly brew pubs in the world, watched the Alaska Goldpanners play the Northwest Honkers on a baseball field with no artificial lighting.  Then, reluctantly, once again had to leave Alaska headed south.

For my departure I was on Alaska Airlines flight 128 from Fairbanks to Seattle.  We departed FAI at 1:30 a.m. in low sunlight and 3 hours 9 minutes later deplaned (early) in Seattle

Route of AS 128 from FAI-SEA very early in the morning on June 16 2017. Because of the constant sunlight the entire route we were asked to keep our window shades down which precluded any views of The Mountain and any alpinglow it may have been producing in the low light of early morning.

With a little more than an hour between planes in SEA it was easy and smooth making my connection to AS 658 bound for Dallas.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky this morning and Mount Rainier stuck out like a sentinel as we raced by it headed southeast.  We arrived in DFW 30 minutes early and there I connected with another airline for my final two segments back home to Sarasota.

Route of AS 658 from SEA-DFW, June 16 2017

As with every other "final" flight on an Alaska Airlines trip I was sad when I had to deplane in Dallas.  On each segment I was treated like I was important to the airline, not just a number or not just another passenger, by everyone I encountered on this great airline.  Thirty years ago all airlines made you feel special; that is no longer the case but for some reason Alaska Airlines has remembered how to do it.

I love living in Florida and can't imagine living anywhere else. The biggest downside of living in Florida (other than being overrun by tourists all winter long) is that my opportunities to fly on Alaska Airlines are limited to one flight a day from Tampa to Seattle.  Its unfortunate with Alaska's current expansion plans that they don't challenge Delta for supremacy in the Atlanta airport like Delta is trying with them in Seattle.  If only that could happen maybe there would be more opportunities to fly with Yukon Jack on the tail of my plane.  I'd certainly be an even more frequent flier if they did.   Until that happens, however, I'll just have to keep planning trips to Alaska and when I do there is only one airline I want to take me there.

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