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The Last of Alaska's Airbuses

The fall travel season is upon us. For those with wanderlust, this means typically low fares on routes nationwide. Non-revs wait anxiously for this time of year to hit popular market segments that otherwise are filled to the brim. Others with lifestyle flexibility use this time of year to capture that dreamy Instagram post. Then, there are the plane nerds.

What is on your travel list? We all have a list of planes that intrigue us or represent what got us into aviation in the first place. I tend to skew towards the rarities - the facets we can only dream about until they are gone. That inspired my Maddog trip a few months ago and, ultimately, drove my trip today. A decade ago, I would have said there would never be a day that Alaska Airlines flew Airbus aircraft. Yet, here we are.

The Why

I have a hard time articulating the reasoning for this trip, thus the inspiration for this article. What can I say? I have wanted to get on one of Alaska Airline's Airbus A321neos for some time. In theory, this dates back to the days the first Alaska Airbus' rolled out of the paint shop, but realistically, it spans much further.

Alaska has always been an airline that intrigues me. When discussing legacy carriers, most think of the big three: American, Delta, and United. However, Alaska (along with Hawaiian Airlines) also lies in that category and features some of the best coast-to-coast service this country offers. Yet, being from a secondary market, Alaska's aircraft had escaped me for most of my aviation life. The same can be said for many aviation enthusiasts living on major metropolitan areas' outskirts.

In the late-2000s, another carrier emerged to compete in transcontinental markets - Virgin America. Started by noted international business tycoon Richard Branson, Virgin America promised a premium product at competitive fares. Most aviation enthusiasts admired the carrier with a cool callsign ("REDWOOD"), and quickly, the airline delivered on its promise and built a loyal customer base.

Unfortunately for Virgin America, foreign ownership limitations prevented Branson from blocking acquisition attempts. To his disappointment, Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America for USD 2.6 billion, completing the merger in April 2018. While the skies of America are undoubtedly missing the quirky low-cost carrier, there are still elements of Virgin America that live on today.

DAve, Who Cares?

Well, I did not mention the interesting conflict this merger presented. When you look at it, consolidation between the two carriers made sense in most business aspects. The premise of the acquisition was that Virgin America competed on many of the same routes as Alaska, with similar market share. Combining forces would make them better positioned to take on the larger conglomerates. Also, they would be able to enter a handful of new and vital markets with high barriers of entry, like Washington-National.

The synergy was seamless, that is, until fleets were compared side by side. Since its inception, Alaska has historically been an all-Boeing operator. They do not let you forget it either, painting "Proudly All Boeing" on the nose of most aircraft. Boeing Field, where most Boeing aircraft are produced, is a short drive from Alaska's largest hub at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. For years, the thought of Alaska operating anything other than Boeing aircraft was considered blasphemous.

Inversely, Virgin America was an all-Airbus carrier of significant size. Virgin Atlantic, Branson's first and most prominent airline adventure, was transitioning into an all-Airbus operator. Striking a favorable deal with the French manufacturer, Virgin America operated the A319, A320, and A321, even serving as the launch customer for the next-generation Airbus A321neo.

What was Alaska going to do with all those Airbuses? Well, it would have been foolish (not to mention costly) not to take advantage of Alaska's potent resources. While it was hard for some aviation enthusiasts to wrap their heads around, Alaska announced they would begin painting Virgin America's Airbus aircraft to operate for Alaska into the future. That's right - the unthinkable was here.

For several years, this was the case, rather uneventfully. While I am a Boeing guy through thick and thin, even I can admit the Alaska colors looked pretty damn good on their fleet of Airbuses. With much life left, it was presumed these aircraft would operate until the end of their useful life when the Airbus fleet would be retired in favor of new Boeing aircraft. Gradually, Alaska would return to an all-Boeing operator.

As it turned out, the COVID-19 pandemic would expedite the older, less efficient aircraft in many airline fleets. This was the first-generation Airbus aircraft for Alaska, in addition to its regional fleet of Bombardier Dash 8-Q400s. The last Airbus A320 operated for Alaska in January of 2023, most finding another life with ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant Air.

For the newer Airbus A321neo aircraft, there is still much life left to live. Serving as the launch customer, Virgin America (Airbus) received some of the first off-the-line. Yet, their time is limited within its fleet matrix. Only a couple of months ago, the Airbus A321neo was removed from Alaska's booking system, marking the end of its short but unique era. For me, this meant time was of the essence.

The Opportunity

So, I immediately began researching ways to get on a former Virgin America Airbus A321neo before they moved on to their next home. While I missed the O-G Virgin America by several years, this would offer me a chance to at least approximate the experience. These cabins were retrofitted in 2019 without an inkling of the looming pandemic, signaling Alaska was set to retain these aircraft for several years. As we know, life does not always go as planned.

Secondly, I wanted to join the list of people who can say they flew an Airbus aircraft operated by Alaska during their short period in history. It is as simple as that because there is no coming back for them. While consolidation is somewhat familiar in aviation, and there is more than enough room for the unpredictable, it isn't easy to see Alaska acquiring another all-Airbus operator in the foreseeable future.

Alaska's airfare premium for transcontinental flights, mainly from New York, added complexity to the situation. Airbus A321neo flights were halted at New York-JFK in the early summer of 2023, limiting my option to the Los Angeles - Newark route. Thankfully, due to the slow time of year, I landed (no pun intended) USD 99 fares each way, taking advantage of likely the last opportunity I had at a reasonable price.

Worth mentioning is that this was not solely about the flight. If you know anything about Los Angeles International Airport, it is like the Wrigley Field of aviation. A must-visit for aviation enthusiasts alike, particularly planespotters, Los Angeles has been an airport that has escaped me for years. Traveling with camera in hand, I would take advantage of my short downtime in Los Angeles, crossing another airport off my list.

The Experience

The authentic Alaska product I could experience on a round trip was lost in all of this. Little is known about what Alaska offers for East Coast travelers, especially in a market dominated by JetBlue. Their cheapest Saver fares rival the strongest competitors, but do the products compare? That is where I come in.

I will keep this brief, as I do not enjoy trip reports that break down every little aspect of an experience, almost as if I expect to be treated like royalty. I am here to answer the utmost basic question - is Alaska an enjoyable transcontinental product?

This is aimed toward economy travel, as I am not ballin' enough to compare first-class to JetBlue Mint. For the overwhelming majority of us traveling economy, we want to ensure we aren't signing up for a miserable five hours. If you prefer to fly Spirit coast to coast, you can stop reading here (who hurt you?).

The simple answer is yes. A few points worth noting:
  • The legroom is spacious, even for my 6'1" self. I cannot stress this enough. In fact, my knees don't even touch the seat in front of me. I cannot remember the last time I was able to say that.

  • In an age where airlines are cutting down on amenities and opening revenue streams, you can expect a full in-flight service. In fact, we got two both ways! However, this is likely due to the duration of the flight, so it is likely not applicable to flights of shorter stage length.

  • The Internet is tremendous and priced at a measly USD 8. Some airlines do not allow enough bandwidth to stream, but Alaska is not one of them. The internet is some of the fastest offered to date, particularly at the price point Alaska offers.

  • If you are flying on one of the newer aircraft, presumably at the time of reading, this will be the Boeing 737 MAX, you can expect a pretty quiet and comfortable cabin atmosphere, particularly compared to the older Airbus A321s JetBlue and American use on similar routes.

  • Each seat has a USB and a pronged power outlet. They are the older USB ports, so best come prepared (unlike myself). Take my word for it - these are the most underrated parts of most modern-day trips, and Alaska is at the top of the list.

  • There are no seatback screens, as airlines are generally moving away from these costly features. However, Protip - Alaska instead has seatback holders installed to allow eye-level smartphone streaming. They are located just above the pin that stows the tray table.

I hope this helps answer some basic questions about what to expect when flying the little-known Alaska Airlines. Admittedly, most of this article has been about the Airbus A321neos that are set to retire shortly. But, I have ventured on this airline in the past and confirm all of the above also applies to their Boeing 737 fleet. It is a comfortable and enjoyable experience at a (usually) competitive price. I am unsure when the next opportunity will arise to visit the West Coast, but when that day comes again, I will do what I can to fly Alaska.

P.S. - Part of being immersed in aviation is experiencing the many special liveries that grace the skies. One of my favorite ones is the attractive post-merger "More to Love" livery painted on a handful of Boeing 737 and Airbus A321neo aircraft. Luckily, I had a 20% chance of flying on one for myself - and I did! N926VA, one of the two "More to Love" Airbus A321neos, took me to Los Angeles, making it the third special livery I have flown on.

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