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Alaska Air’s Bad Day – Highlights and Lowlights

In an industry that often seems intent on treating its customers with callous disregard, Alaska Airlines enjoys an enviable reputation for doing the opposite. Much of that acclaim is due to its loyalty program, Mileage Plan, which among other features boasts an outsized roster of airline partners available for earning and redeeming miles.

This week, however, Alaska’s likability quotient (and its mileage program) took a hit. A big hit.

What They Did

In the wee hours of March 30, Alaska raised the prices of first- and business-class Emirates award flights, by as much as 100 percent. Members of Mileage Plan received no advance notice of the price hikes.

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Later the next day, in response to a torrent of negative comments from customers and the media, Alaska took the unusual step of posting a FAQ on its website, detailing and rationalizing the changes.

The gist of it:

Alaska’s premium Emirates awards have long been known as an exceptionally good deal. With the rise of “travel-hacking,” intended to exploit Mileage Plan’s award routing rules, coupled with below-market award levels, our previous award levels were unsustainable. The new award levels enable Alaska to continue to offer Emirates Business Class and First Class as a redemption option.

What They Did Right

First, posting the FAQ showed that Alaska was at least sensitive to the concerns of its customers. Would Delta have tried to explain and justify itself under similar circumstances? Doubtful.

On the other hand, it was clearly an afterthought, a move precipitated by the blowback the company should have anticipated.

Also right, and necessary, was Alaska’s offer to refund the price of any Mileage Plan miles purchased after March 1, recognizing that some program members may have bought miles specifically to redeem for Emirates award flights.

What They Did Wrong

Can Alaska be faulted for raising the prices of Emirates awards? Yes and no.

As any Tumi-toting road warrior knows, award-price increases are a fact of travel life. However, spikes of the magnitude of the Emirates increases are extremely rare. And it was Alaska, after all, that set the prices at levels it now claims were unsustainably low.

Then there’s the matter of no advance notice. Inexcusable and unacceptable. Alaska halfway acknowledges that, promising on its FAQ: “Our policy is to communicate significant program changes with at least 30 days’ notice when at all possible.” And it wasn’t possible in this case? Hmm.

And finally, there’s the unseemly and disingenuous finger-pointing. Blaming the abrupt change on travel hackers’ use of low award prices and liberal routing rules is a dishonorable attempt to evade responsibility and shift it elsewhere.

The rules, again, were of Alaska’s own making. And those so-called travel hackers were Alaska’s own customers.

Reader Reality Check

How far in advance should mileage programs notify their members of upcoming award-price changes?

More from SmarterTravel:

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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