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Update (Dec. 10, 2020): Alaska has revealed its reciprocal elite benefits with Oneworld. See Alaska elites section below for more details.
Head spinning yet, Alaska loyalists?
Alaska Airlines announced today that it will join the Oneworld Alliance, which includes 13 (soon to be 14) airlines. Alaska will be the second U.S.-based airline in Oneworld, along with American Airlines.
But wait, didn’t Alaska and American just break up? Yes. After Alaska’s merger with Virgin America in 2016, they planned to sever their ties with American at the end of this month (February 2020). So this announcement is a major reversal.
The move seems aimed to compete aggressively with Delta Air Lines on the West Coast. Alaska has a massive West Coast presence but a minuscule international footprint. Meanwhile, American and Oneworld have a huge international presence but are struggling to compete on the West Coast.
Alaska plans to join Oneworld fully by summer 2021, with staged changes in the meantime:
Starting now: You can continue using Alaska miles to book American flights and earning Alaska miles for flying with American. In other words, this partnership will not end in March as planned.
Spring 2020: Earn Alaska miles when flying on domestic and international American Airlines flights (current partnership only applies to international AA flights).
Summer 2021: Earn and redeem Alaska miles on all Oneworld partners. Alaska elites receive priority boarding, premium seating and baggage benefits on partners. MVP Gold and 75k elites can access Oneworld lounges.
All this information is from Alaska’s site, while American has released this statement. American’s page describing their partnership with Alaska has not been updated, and still claims that the partnership is ending in March. The impact of this partnership for American (and Oneworld) flyers is therefore somewhat less clear.
What this means for Alaska flyers
Since Alaska has always acted as a lone wolf that eschewed major alliances in its partnership strategy, this announcement cuts both ways. Alaska flyers will benefit from the expanded partnership network, but they should be wary of forthcoming devaluations and other limitations to the excellent Mileage Plan program.
Many of Alaska’s partners are already in the Oneworld alliance, so the announcement isn’t as drastic as it seems at first blush. Here’s the full breakdown:
Current Alaska partners that are members of Oneworld:
Oneworld members that Alaska will gain partnership with in 2021:
Royal Air Maroc.
As you can see, the slate of partners due to join in 2021 isn’t exactly an all-star cast, outside of Qatar Airways.
We’re not yet sure what will happen to Alaska’s existing non-Oneworld partners, such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates. Will they continue as separate partners? Or will they drop from Alaska’s program? If the latter (which is unlikely), this change would be a clear net-negative for Alaska flyers.
This biggest knock against the Alaska MVP elite status program has always been its limited international footprint. While Alaska has a robust partnership network, the benefits of MVP status on these partners were extremely limited, amounting to a few lounge perks.
The extension of elite benefits into the entire Oneworld ecosystem is therefore a huge win for Alaska elites, and a big selling point for international flyers who have avoided the program.
Update: Alaska has released the details of reciprocal benefits within the Oneworld Alliance. Starting March 31, 2021:
Alaska MVP elites will receive Oneworld Ruby status. This offers some seat selection benefits when flying with Oneworld airlines.
Alaska MVP Gold elites will receive Oneworld Sapphire status. This offers seat selection benefits, business class lounge access, priority boarding and baggage allowance when flying with Oneworld airlines.
Alaska MVP Gold 75k elites will receive Oneworld Emerald status. This offers seat selection benefits, first and business class lounge access, priority boarding, expedited security, and baggage allowance when flying with Oneworld airlines.
The real benefits kick in at the MVP Gold and 75k levels. Lounge access when flying internationally, in particular, offers a huge new benefit for these higher-tier Alaska elites.
What this means for AA flyers
Presumably, the Oneworld benefits of AAdvantage elite status (such as priority boarding and baggage perks) will extend to Alaska flights, and presumably this benefit will arrive in summer 2021. But for now we just don’t have many details.
We do know that American will add two international routes to the West Coast as part of this expansion:
Seattle to Bangalore, India, starting fall 2020.
Seattle to London Heathrow starting spring 2021.
What I think
As an Alaska MVP Gold member, I’m both excited and apprehensive about this announcement. I’ve been playing with the idea of switching loyalty to Delta to reap the benefits of their elite status while flying internationally, and this announcement is clearly a deliberate move to bring my like back in the fold. So far, I’m convinced.
On the other hand, the Alaska Mileage Plan swept our 2020 ranking of the top airline loyalty programs for a reason — they have maintained a high-value program while others race to the bottom. I can’t help but worry that this announcement portends that dread concept, “devaluation.”
Call me pessimistic, but I won’t get too excited about this change until I learn all the details. What are the specific benefits for Alaska elites on Oneworld? Will the current mile earning structure apply to partners such as JAL, or are we in for a change? Once we know more, we can begin assessing the true tradeoffs for Alaska (and American) flyers.
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