That Alaskan breeze: A review of Alaska’s A321neo in economy from San Francisco to New York
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This review has published with TPG’s updated scoring system, and you will notice different point allocations in certain sections of the flight. To read more about the changes, see this post.
There are few routes in the US that are more competitive than the ones between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. As of the writing of this review, over 40 flights depart in each direction every day. And, many flights on these routes are equipped with aircraft sporting international configurations or special transcontinental setups meant to one-up coast-to-coast competitors.
American, Delta and United, aka the US “Big Three,” have long dominated the premium-cabin traffic on the route, with JetBlue’s TPG Award-winning Mint cabin disrupting and often beating these legacy carriers in service, comfort and price.
Though less glamorous, economy is highly competitive in the transcon market, too. Ever since Alaska merged with Virgin America, a new player has entered the space, vying to bring its loyal customers with it. Alaska has ranked the No. 1 airline in the US by J.D. Power 12 years in a row, but notably, its fleet lacks built-in inflight-entertainment screens and relies on a bring-your-own-device model, unlike other major players on these routes.
Having flown every other economy product on flights between my home in NYC and San Francisco save for one, I figured it was time to try Alaska out on a recently retrofitted, former Virgin America, A321neo (short for “new engine option”).
Alaska’s MileagePlan is one of the best award programs for two reasons: First, it’s still relatively easy to earn miles on Alaska, as you earn miles based on your actual miles flown as long as you purchase (and don’t redeem for) your ticket. This is unlike most major airlines today, which calculate mileage earning per flight based on the cost and fare class of your ticket.
Second, Alaska uses a distance-based award chart for its airline partners, and it’s here that you can find incredible value for award redemptions, especially in premium economy, business and first class, like JAL or Cathay Pacific business class for only 50,000 miles. If you’re looking to boost your MileagePlan balance, consider signing up for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card. Currently, this card is offering a limited time sign-up bonus: Earn a $100 statement credit, 40,000 bonus miles, and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.
But we booked this economy one-way ticket last-minute, and it all-in cost $281. I chose the 1:10 p.m. departure from San Francisco (SFO) to arrive in New York-JFK around 10 p.m. Eastern time, as I anticipated delays on the route (and you should too). Any later would land me back in my NYC apartment after midnight.
We used The Platinum Card® from American Express to purchase the ticket directly through Alaska, in order to take advantage of the card’s 5x bonus category on flights booked directly through the airline or through Amex Travel.
Flight 1024 departed from Gate 51B in Terminal 2, with boarding set to begin at 12:30 p.m. Coming from the Fillmore District, I gave myself 30 minutes to get to SFO by Lyft, and even with TSA PreCheck and CLEAR, aimed to arrive nearly two hours early to visit a lounge and have enough time to take photos of the terminal. I had been sure to check in and get my electronic boarding pass the day prior.
All Alaska Airlines flights depart from Terminal 2 at SFO, the former home of Virgin America.
It was easy to find Alaska check-in, baggage and self-help kiosks.
Since I had already checked in with a boarding pass on my phone, I proceeded directly to security.
Terminal 2 was airy, modern and pleasant. It was connected via AirTrain to BART, as well as every other terminal at the airport (landside only).
SFO Terminal 2 has PreCheck and CLEAR right next to the regular TSA security checkpoint. Five minutes after entering the PreCheck line, I was through security. At this not-so-peak late-morning time, the regular security lane looked like it would have taken about 15 minutes to get through.
In 2020, Alaska plans to open a 8,500-square-foot “top floor” lounge in Terminal 2, which will be the second-largest lounge in its network and promises spectacular runway views. On the day of my flight, though, I’d planned to visit the Centurion Lounge in Terminal 3 by Gate 73, but I made a rookie mistake: Terminal 3 isn’t accessible for airside connections to Terminal 2. After realizing my mistake, I proceeded down the wide corridor to walk around a bit before boarding.
There were roughly 12 dedicated food-and-drink establishments in Terminal 2, ranging from restaurants and counter service to coffee (hello, Peet’s!), plus other shops, stores and even a wine shop offering tasting menus.
Terminal 2 stocked a decent assortment of seating, but the power outlets weren’t as bountiful.
I took a seat and enjoyed some of the excellent planespotting views afforded by SFO — they were running the classic parallel departures from 28L/R and 1L/R.
After grabbing a not-so-good ham-and-cheese sandwich at Peet’s, I connected to the free airport Wi-Fi and headed to the gate.
The gate was crowded, as expected. Based on the seating chart, this would be a nearly full flight on Alaska’s largest airplane, the A321neo.
And lucky me, we got the “More to Love” livery!
Boarding began right on time at 12:30 p.m. for our 1:10 p.m. departure. First class boarded at 12:40 p.m., and my group, Group C, boarded a few minutes later.
Cabin and Seat
Alaska Airlines’ A321neos are the standard bearer for the airline’s transcon service, and should be your preferred Alaska aircraft for these flights, over the tighter 737s.
There are 190 seats on board: 16 in first, 24 in premium and 150 in economy.
First-class seats are in a 2-2 configuration, while premium and economy seats are in the standard 3-3 configuration.
Immediately, it became clear this airplane was new. The seats were clean and plush (at least as plush as domestic economy seats can be), with minimal use. The crew had chosen to use blue mood lighting, a small but nice touch to instill a sense of calm before a flight.
I sat on the window behind the wing. As with most A321s, there were lavatories in the middle and back of the cabin (with those in the front reserved for first-class passengers). This seat was behind that middle lav.
Seat 33A was clean when I arrived, and actually quite comfortable. Undeniably, the seat comfort was in part thanks to the newness of the plane, but the seat seemed considerably more padded than the thin economy seats I had on United’s 787-10, which I had sat in on my trip out to the Bay a few days prior.
While other airlines predominantly use internationally configured widebodies or specially configured narrowbodies, this is the standard configuration for Alaska’s A321neos, so whether you’re flying across the country or on a shorter intra-West Coast hop, you’ll get the same product.
The seat’s headrest folded in, moved up and down and even tilted. I found it very comfortable.
Every seat stocks a few notable features, including a USB and universal power outlet, a smart choice, considering the airline isn’t installing entertainment screens on seatbacks.
Both ports worked. More on this in the IFE and amenities section, but Alaska’s robust collection of film, TV and other content was accessible via Wi-Fi and didn’t require a separate purchase.
To accommodate its BYOD passengers, Alaska has incorporated nifty design features into the seats to hold a smartphone and tablet (more on that in the next section).
A mesh pocket provided extra storage and was significantly less gross than nonmesh pockets that collect all types of crumbs and residue.
The folding tray table was on the smaller side, and couldn’t fit much more than a 13-inch MacBook Pro along with a cup or two.
Nevertheless, the small size provided larger-than-normal space — and thus visibility — between the seatback and the table, so I could access a carry-on bag under the seat in front without leaning into a seatmate. Lucky for me, though, I had no seatmate for this flight!
Notably, Alaska chose to install personal air vents at each seat, which proved helpful as the cabin filled up with people and got hot.
Shortly after the boarding door closed, our captain came on the P.A. to announce our flight time: four hours, 49 minutes, cruising at 35,000 feet. In seemingly classic SFO fashion, we sat the gate until 20 minutes past departure time for “weight and balance issues.” SFO, like JFK and others, is prone to delays thanks to busy traffic and low-lying fog. I’d recommend building time into your itinerary with this in mind.
Finally at 1:34 p.m., we pushed back and slowly proceeded to Runway 1R. Perhaps the one consolation of an SFO delay is the great airline traffic at the airport. Planespotting helped this AvGeek pass the time.
After nearly an hour of ground delays. we were wheels-up at 2:26 p.m., and through 10,000 feet five minutes after that.
We leveled off at 35,000 about 30 minutes after takeoff, and the first officer noted that we’d try to make up some time.
About halfway into the flight, a trip to the lavatory revealed a rather standard, albeit clean, airplane bathroom, with a tiny sink that made spilling water on the floor all but a certainty. But it was clean, and that’s what counts!
Alaska chose to use blue ambient lighting on board as the sun set, creating a pleasant cabin experience for us folks in economy.
Amenities and IFE
Upon arriving at 33A, I noticed there was no blanket or pillow on the seat, which some other airlines provide on transcon flights. I also noticed what was expected: no built-in TV.
Alaska Airlines joins the ranks of airlines that have opted out of built-in IFE screens in favor of what we call BYOD (bring your own device). Instead of a traditional TV screen, Alaska, like American Airlines and United on a chunk of their domestic fleets, offers an extensive catalog of complimentary entertainment content through their onboard Wi-Fi. And travelers take note: Do your reading and be sure to download the necessary app to stream content before your flight. On many airlines, once airborne, you will unable to download the app unless you pay for Wi-Fi, if even that.
After a quick Google search the night prior, I read on the Alaska website to download the Gogo entertainment app, which I did in under two minutes. You can also find this information in the information packet in the seatback pocket. They say you can do it in flight, but I’d do it before to be safe.
It’s actually pretty simple once you’ve downloaded the app: Connect to the inflight Wi-Fi on your preferred device, then go to Alaskawifi.com. It’s all outlined in the info packet in the seatback pocket.
If you don’t have a device or if this sounds too complicated, tablets are available to rent on select coast-to-coast and Hawaii flights for $10 for the flight (free for MVP Gold 75K passengers). Headphones are available for purchase for $3, but that’s included if you go in for the tablet. Tablets are collected 30 minutes prior to landing.
Alaska provides plenty of options for your viewing pleasure. From every Harry Potter film to “Dunkirk,” “E.T.,” “Fargo,” a dozen Bond films, “Life of Pi,” a bunch of Marvel films, documentaries like “RBG,” “Lord of the Rings” and more, it would be hard to be left unentertained for the five-hour flight.
You can browse by the usual categories but also “Authorized Personnel Only” and “Find Your Wing Woman” (for films with female leads).
TV series included titles like “Friends,” “Black-ish,” “Empire,” “The Simpsons” and “How I Met Your Mother.” Some series had full seasons, including “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Friends,” but others had only one episode (like “The Simpsons”). TV shows were sorted by channel and genre and included cartoons
There was also a collection of audible books on tape and a kids section.
And there was a flight tracker with a semi-interactive map, plus a food-and-drink menu with information about ingredients and which options were available on which flights (also included in the seatback magazine). Unlike Virgin America, however, you couldn’t order food or drinks through this interface.
Upon selecting a movie, I got a pop-up that directed me to the Gogo entertainment app. It was slightly convoluted but intuitive enough to follow. A 30-second ad followed before playback of selected content.
As noted above, there was a nifty minitable — let’s call it a ledge — that provided a space to rest a phone or tablet. A spring mechanism above effectively gripped tablets and prevented them from falling.
Without a tablet, I watched on my laptop, and made sure to visit the Alaska website before the flight to see what I needed ensure it would work. I needed an updated version of Adobe player (which they outlined).
A couple times, I paused playback and the movie reset, reloading the page and prompting the same 30-second ad. Slightly annoying, but not a deal breaker.
All in all, the system worked well, although it could make multitasking tricky if you wanted to work while you watched on your computer. And, unlike some airlines, content resumed where I had left it when exiting playback to check the inflight map.
Alaska offers actual internet access for purchase on flights, too, with different options. At $6.50 for an hourly pass and $20 for the full flight, I found the rates relatively reasonable considering some competitors. United, for example, charged an egregious $35 for a flight pass on that recent coast-to-coast flight. I purchased one to demo the Wi-Fi, and results were promising. Netflix, Facebook, Instagram and Chrome loaded with ease. Streaming was HD, too.
Note that iMessage, Facebook messenger and WhatsApp are all complimentary (no photo or video, though), and you get free Wi-Fi if you’re a T-Mobile customer. You just need to activate texting at alaskawifi.com once connected to the inflight Wi-Fi to access the other Wi-Fi purchase options.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Almost immediately after clearing 10,000 feet, flight attendants began the first of several “water services.” A more typical drinks service would follow a little while later, but I appreciated this first service, especially considering the long ground delay and that full drink service can take awhile, especially for folks like me towards the back of the plane.
While no meals would be served on this flight (unlike Delta), food was available for purchase. A buy-on-board menu listed options for food offerings, which depend on route, time of day and duration.
Most “snacks” are available on flights of at least 1.5 hours, with more robust meals like sandwiches, salad and cheese plates on flights of two-to-three hours or more.
About an hour after takeoff, drink service reached my seat, with complimentary cookies and food for purchase. Curious about food on this route, I asked for a salad. Unfortunately, there were neither salads nor sandwiches left. I opted for the protein platter (consisting of red pepper hummus, pita, cheese, grilled chicken, almonds, cage-free hardboiled egg and carrot), which was $9.50. The Alaska Airlines Visa card earns 20% back on inflight purchases if you choose to make one.
The hummus tasted about as good as it looked: texturally sound, but I found it to be too tangy and overall unappealing. The rest of the food was okay. Not gross or inedible, just not fresh and a pretty small portion. I wouldn’t get it again; maybe try the fruit and cheese platter if you’re hungry. Passengers can also reserve food online up to 12 hours prior to a flight.
After the meal, I switched on a move and enjoyed the changing terrain below.
Cabin crew came through with water about once per hour, with another full drink service about halfway through the flight, plus one more about an hour and a half after that.
Alaska earned its reputation for great service with this flight.
Alaska Airlines receives awards for good service, and from this flight, it’s well-earned. Cabin crew were friendly and efficient without seeming rushed or dejected. As with any economy flight, I applaud airlines that offer drink service beyond the one or two offered inflight: coming down the aisle with water goes a long way, even if you’re carrying a water bottle. With about a water service per hour, Alaska is paying attention to the little things, and it shows.
In the end, AS 1024 landed behind schedule, and after having to be towed into the way-too-small T7, we clocked in at 40 minutes late. But I had anticipated that, and chose the earlier flight out of SFO for this very reason.
My first flight on Alaska was a positive one. With no middle seat occupant the seat no doubt felt more spacious, but it was clean nonetheless, surprisingly comfortable and well-padded, with two functioning charging ports. Plus I just love that ambient lighting.
Alaska doesn’t have built-in entertainment screens on its planes, but it does have the BYOD down. For your own sake do some quick research before your flight to be sure you’re prepared. Wi-Fi worked seamlessly, and, even though I didn’t like the food that I ate, it wasn’t outrageously expensive, and the other options could have been more satisfying.
While I might choose a different carrier for the built-in screen and perhaps a free meal, I would by no means avoid Alaska in the transcon market, except maybe if I were scheduled on the narrower 737. Indeed, considering the miles you’re earning are based on actual distance and can be used for some of the best partner awards in the world, I will seriously consider Alaska on my next transcontinental trip.
All photos by the author.
Updated on 2/27/20
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