Alaska joined oneworld: No news on awards is good news, expanded partnership with AA is a win for many

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Alaska joined oneworld yesterday. They had a virtual press conference complete with executives doing the (air) safety dance to announce the completion of that process, though ultimately we didn’t learn much beyond simple stuff that we could have guessed (like lounge access benefits and the fact that you can earn miles when flying partner airlines). In my opinion, the most positive part of the announcement is that there has been no change (yet) to the previous timeline indicating that full oneworld awards will debut in summer 2021 and Alaska’s intention to give at least 90 days notice on any award chart changes. Given that most awards can be booked about a year in advance, it means that we should hopefully have the chance to book summer 2022 travel before any devaluation occurs, which is as good as the news was likely to be on that front. The expansion of Alaska’s partnership with American is also likely good news for members of both programs.

Alaska Airlines Companion Fare

Things we know about Alaska’s integration into oneworld

One Mile at a Time does a great job diving into the details, but here is a high level overview:

  • Alaska elite members gain oneworld status as per the following:
    • Alaska MVP = oneworld Ruby
    • Alaska MVP Gold = oneworld Sapphire
    • Alaska MVP Gold 75K = oneworld Emerald
    • Note: Alaska again addressed that it will ad a new 100K elite tier but did not provide more detail. This will presumably also be oneworld Emerald.
  • Alaska Mileage Plan members should be able to earn miles on all oneworld airlines and vice versa. See the partner earning charts to see how many Alaska miles you earn based on fare class (that page has been updated to include all oneworld airlines). Note that excellent premium cabin bonuses persist with British Airways and we also see good bonuses with many oneworld partners.
  • Lounge access expands in the following ways:
    • American AAdvantage Platinum members and above can now access Alaska Lounges when flying a oneworld airline in most international markets same day
    • oneworld Sapphire members from programs other than Alaska and American and above can access Alaska Lounges when flying a oneworld airline in any market same day (including on domestic US flights).
    • Alaska MVP Gold members can access all oneworld Sapphire lounges (including Admirals Clubs) and Alaska MVP Gold 75K members can access all oneworld Emerald lounges when flying a oneworld airline in most international markets same day
  • There has been no announcement regarding Alaska’s non-oneworld partners, but it stands to reason that there will likely be some changes
  • There is no news about award charts or award redemption: starting in summer of 2021, you should be able to redeem Alaska Mileage Plan miles on all oneworld airlines and vice versa, but no new Alaska award chart has been announced yet.
  • Alaska’s partnership with American has expanded well beyond oneworld benefits – and this is mostly great news for elite members of both programs

The last two bullet points are the points of most interest to me since it means we have some more time to enjoy the best Alaska sweet spots and elite members in both Alaska and American’s programs pick up some nice reciprocal benefits.

What should we expect regarding award chart changes?

50K to fly like this from anywhere in Asia to/from the US is likely in jeopardy.

Alaska is still apparently not ready to launch its new award chart, which falls in line with where they set expectations with earlier announcements when they said that oneworld awards would begin in summer of 2021 and that they aim to provide 90 days of notice for award chart changes.

Reading between the lines, I have to wonder if part of the reason for the differing timelines for the oneworld welcome date (yesterday) and launch of a new award chart (some undefined time in the summer) is to avoid any negative press about award chart changes overshadowing the pomp and circumstance of yesterday’s announcement.

Still, I think the delay here is good news. If Alaska plans to launch oneworld awards in summer and they plan to give 90 days notice of award chart changes, it would mean that we should probably be able to book travel as far out as summer 2022 at current award rates. That continues to be good news.

I think everyone expects that Alaska’s unified oneworld award chart won’t be as generous as some of its best sweet spots today. For example, it is hard to imagine that a sweet spot like the US to anywhere in Asia in business class on Cathay Pacific for 50K miles one-way — or first class on Cathay or Japan Airlines for 70K — is going to persist. Given that Alaska and American are working together to make Seattle an international hub for flights to Asia (on American), I find it hard to imagine that flights on partners Cathay and JAL will continue to be available for much better award rates than flights on American (which are currently 60K or 70K in business and 80K or 110K in first class depending on the part of Asia and finding availability). My guess is that pricing will move closer to those AA numbers than the current JAL and Cathay rates.

My guesses about what will stay

I think Alaska will retain some great features and probably add some nice enhancements. Here are my guesses:

  • Alaska will keep a stopover on a one-way award. I don’t see a reason why this needs to change, particularly since I expect some award prices will change.
  • Alaska will finally allow multiple partners on an award booking, but probably only multiple oneworld partners. I imagine that some of the difficulty in a multi-partner booking is in aligning ticketing systems, but now that they are fully integrated in oneworld I imagine this will be easier and advantageous for not only members but also Alaska and its partners.
  • Alaska will likely keep some non-alliance partnerships. It is more difficult guessing which will continue to fit strategically than it is to guess which don’t.
  • Alaska will continue awarding mileage based on distance flown. This is a key differentiator that gives customers a reason to choose Mileage Plan over American Airlines, so I think it would be wise to keep it particularly in today’s world of low fares.
  • MVP Gold 75K will still be oneworld Emerald after the introduction of Alaska’s new 100K tier. One Mile at a Time speculates that the introduction of the 100K tier is more about aligning status with American for reciprocal benefits than it is about anything to do with oneworld and that seems like a reasonable guess.

But it won’t all be rainbows and sunshine.

My guesses and questions about what will change

Alaska has several current advantages that I imagine are likely to change and those interested in them should be considering how to leverage them before things change:

  • The sweetest sweet spots are likely in danger. This includes:
    • Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines to Asia (50K-60K business class, 70K first class),
    • Cathay Pacific to Africa (62.5K business class, 70K first class)
    • Fiji or Qantas to New Zealand and the South Pacific (55K business class).
      The rates above combined with the free stopover represent fantastic value. I think it would likely be hard for Alaska to offer those same rates on American and other oneworld partners to those regions, so I think we may see changes there.
  • While many will wonder about how long the Emirates partnership will survive or how long Alaska will maintain ties with competing alliances through partnerships with Singapore and Korean (and how that conflicts with American’s ambitions to turn Seattle into an international hub), the partnership that I’m most interested in Alaska maintaining is LATAM given oneworld’s poor reach in South America. Given Delta’s big stake in LATAM, I’m least confident in the LATAM partnership surviving. That would be a shame considering the 45K business class price to South America and 25K business class within South America.
  • I imagine we will see some new routing restrictions. For example, with Alaska’s pre-oneworld partnerships, you could book Finnair for travel to Asia, but not British Airways. Cathay Pacific could be booked for travel to Africa, which I imagine won’t last once you can book Qatar.

Overall, I think Alaska likely wants to maintain a competitive program that keeps members interested and I think they are likely to keep some of their best advantages like mileage earning based on distance flown and a stopover on a one-way award, but the cheapest sweet spots are likely to change to keep a more unified award chart.

To be clear, my guesses are speculation and opinion. I’d love to be wrong on some of them and time will tell.

Partnership with American Airlines expanding

American Airlines Planes

While not specifically part of the oneworld announcement, Alaska and American also announced an expansion of their strategic partnership that includes more reciprocal benefits for members of both programs. In addition to standard oneworld stuff like priority check-in, priority security, lounge access (as noted above), etc, American and Alaska announced further reciprocal benefits starting on April 5, 2021:

  • Extra legroom seats
    • Alaska MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members traveling on American Airlines can select Main Cabin Extra seats at the time of booking without fare class restrictions
    • Alaska MVP members traveling on AA can select Main Cabin Extra seats within 24 hours of departure without fare class restrictions
    • American Executive Platinum members traveling on Alaska can select Premium Class seats at the time of booking
    • American Platinum Pro and Platinum members traveling on Alaska can select Premium Class seats depending on fare class. If booked in the Y, B, H, K, M, L, V, S or N fare classes, Premium Class seats can be selected at the time of booking. Those traveling in other fare classes can select these seats within 72 hours of departure.
    • American Gold members traveling on Alaska can select Premium Class seats depending on fare class. If booked in the Y, B, or H fare classes, Premium Class seats can be selected at the time of booking. Those traveling in other fare classes can select these seats within 48 hours of departure.
  • Upgrades
    • Alaska MVP Gold 75K members and one companion on the same reservation will be eligible for first class upgrades on American Airlines flights within the US and to/from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.
    • American Airlines Executive Platinum members will be eligible for first class upgrades on Alaska Airlines flights, though saver fares are not eligible and upgrades only apply to the member with status (a companion will likely be included in the future, but not yet). Upgrades can be confirmed up to 120 hours prior to departure. Executive Platinum members will be prioritized after MVP Gold 75K members, first by fare class and then by the request date and time.
    • Later in 2021, Alaska MVP Gold 75K members qualifying for status for 2022 will receive an upgrade certificate valid for travel on eligible American Airlines international routes

While American and Alaska had previously had a partnership that included things like the ability for Alaska elite to select Main Cabin Extra seats, the expansion here to include first class upgrades will surely be nice for elite members of both programs. I imagine that MVP Gold members may see fewer upgrades than in the past when traveling on Alaska given the competition with American’s elite members, but the ability to get Main Cabin Extra when traveling on American is probably a decent trade.

Alaska MVP Gold 75K members make out particularly well here given that they still get priority for upgrades on Alaska and pick up the ability to get an upgrade for themselves and a companion on the same reservation on popular American Airlines routes as well as eventually getting an upgrade certificate for AA international routes that could be very valuable.

Bottom line

Alaska has now officially joined oneworld. For the time being, that mostly means seeing oneworld logos on its website, planes, and literature. Long-term, it is likely going to mean award chart changes, though they aren’t here yet and aren’t expected to change without notice. Overall, yesterday’s oneworld announcement was more pomp and circumstance than substance, but the expanded partnership with American Airlines (that goes beyond the oneworld announcement) adds real value for elite members of both programs and is probably good news long-term for both programs. I think we’ll all collectively hold our breath as to what will happen with Mileage Plan’s historically generous award charts, but perhaps we can sigh with a little relief that we have a bit more time to book travel far in the future at the current excellent rates.

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