Alaska Airlines and the Brave New World of Flying…

This past weekend I went to Disneyland. I went with my husband and our 9-year-old. It was the first time for both of them, so it was destined to be a fun trip, and it really was. But I was struck AGAIN by how much less pleasant flying has become.

It was the first time our 9-year-old had ever flown on a plane. That’s not particularly astounding, I guess. What was funny to me was that my husband (who’s English) is always inclined to make a very big deal about these things. I’m surprised he didn’t want to put him I a little suit and dashing hat. I mean, the kid’s 9. He has enough to worry about!

But that made me start to think. Remember the days when flying was dashing? People used to dress up and it was stylish and sophisticated. Flight attendants were so elegant and glamorous… Flying was really a first-class experience, even if one wasn’t in first-class. Now it’s more like steerage (unless one is in first class, which is quite a bit better, but still, I think, not like it was.)

I understand that it’s been difficult for airlines to successfully grow their businesses due to a lot of things, including the recession, relentless fuel increases, cost of ever-changing and ever-demanded technology and, of course, the cost of human capital. Maybe it’s really just the cost of making something that was once reserved for the “upper echelon” into something that now is accessible to anyone. That’s a good thing – I absolutely believe it. But the experience has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

We fly Alaska Airlines a lot. Obviously, they’re Seattle-based and we’re Seattle-based. They have a great service and on-time arrival record, and they fly to most of the places we want to go. We are members of their loyalty program and we fly them 4 to 6 times per year. What I’ve started noticing about Alaska (and I think it is probably the same with most carriers) is that their planes are FULL; rarely is there an empty seat, and if there is, it’s a random middle seat in one row in the back (probably was sold, but ticket-holder was stuck in traffic or something). That – in and of itself – is not my gripe, despite the discomfort at times (given the decreasing amount of personal space on all planes).

My gripe is the trouble with luggage. Planes were built to house carry-on bags in the overhead bins, and small things, like purses and briefcases, under the seat in front of the passenger. Problem is, with full flights, there simply isn’t enough room for the carry-on luggage being carried on by passengers, which contributes to delays in on-time departures. I guess the original designs for planes either counted on the aircraft not being full, or the fact that not all passengers would be carrying on luggage. Further complicating the matter is the ongoing conflict between passengers who will insist that a pull-behind, a large diaper bag, a backpack, a laptop case and a purse somehow comprise “two” carry-ons and the airlines, who try very hard to keep the “customer is mostly right” mentality. And you know it happens – I’m sure you’ve seen it, too.

So, lately, at least on Alaska Airlines, we’ve been seeing something that starts to address these issues. The checked-bag fee has made it more difficult, obviously. No one wants to pay to send their bag through to their destination. It’s no fun waiting at baggage claim when you want to get on with your vacation — or home from your vacation. PLUS, traveling costs enough without paying for baggage fees, so folks are trying to pack more and more into their carry-on items. In order to address the fact that there simply isn’t enough space for all those carry-ons on full flights, Alaska (and perhaps others, although I haven’t flown another airline in over a year) has been offering an incentive to guests at the gate who would be willing to check their bags. First, the gate-checking is fee-less, and secondly, they offer early seating (right after first class and their premier flyers) to any flyer who checks their bag and doesn’t use the overhead space. Of course, the funny thing is that once you don’t have a bag you need to try to find space for in the overheads, early boarding becomes less necessary (and in my opinion, less desirable). Who wants to sit on a plane while waiting for everyone else to board? The only reason to board early is to ensure you get a space for your carry-on luggage in the overhead space – but that’s not necessary if they’ve checked it anyway!

Still, people LOVE an opportunity to get something for little or no exertion on their part, so it was working! Even though people who checked their pull-behinds still stuffed their backpacks and laptop bags in the overhead bins. (People are people after all!) But bags were being checked and planes were taking off on-time, and they were still full, full, full!

But yesterday, on our trip home from Disneyland, we experienced something a little different. Once again, at the gate, we were apprised of the fact that the flight was completely full – not a seat remaining, and as a result there simply would not be enough room in the overhead space for all the carry-on luggage. So, knowing the drill, I mentioned to my husband that we could probably board early if we wanted to check our luggage.

Now, it was more important to us on our return flight for a very important reason: Alaska generally boards from the back, so after those needing special assistance, First Class, Premier and 75K members, etc., they then board the back rows first, which means the overhead bins start to fill from the front of the plane to the back (because the flight attendants don’t police where one PUTS one’s bag). On our flight home yesterday, we were seated in rows 10 and 11, at the front of the plane, and sure enough, when we got to board (the very last group to do so) EVERY SINGLE BIN was closed, full, and they were gate-checking carry-ons for those boarding in front of us!

So, it hit me today. Even though we checked our bags at the gate at the request of the airline, we were not offered early boarding yesterday. I thought that was interesting, so I sent a tweet to Alaska Airlines. And they responded, which was no surprise to me as they’re totally social-savvy:


Go figure.  Makes me wonder what’s next..  I’m guessing that carry-ons will be more strictly limited — maybe just ONE — but who knows? What kind of things are you seeing as air travel evolves?  Please share!  I’d love to hear from you.

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