Alaska’s “Saver” Basic Economy Fare Will Include Limited Seat Assignments

Alaska said awhile ago it would roll out a Basic Economy fare to compete with low cost carriers the way that American, Delta, and United all have.  Despite that, Alaska said its product wouldn’t need to look the same as that of the other carriers.  Now, Alaska has put out a about the new product, called a Saver Fare, before it has released it into the wild.  How does it look?  Well, this memo makes it look more restrictive than Alaska said it would be regarding seats, but I’ve confirmed with the airline that this isn’t the whole story.

Let’s start with the timeline.  This will be put on sale in early November for travel beginning in January.  So if you’re flying this year and are trying to understand what’s happening, then you can ignore this entire post.

For the rest of you, here are the differences between Saver and regular coach.

  • Changes are not allowed (including same-day changes).
  • Saver fares board the airplane last, so bin space may be hard to find.  But carry-on bags will be allowed if they fit.
  • Mileage earning (redeemable miles and elite qualifying miles) is the same for Saver fares as for regular coach fares.
  • Elite members of the frequent flier program do not get benefits, including upgrades. (The only exception is that they keep their boarding priority.)
  • Seat assignment rules are tougher to explain, so let’s get into that further…

According to the travel agent memo, seat assignments will not be given in advance to those on Saver fares.  Those travelers will have the opportunity pay for Premium (extra legroom seats) if they want, but otherwise they have to wait until check-in.  But this rule apparently only applies to travel agents (on or offline) for now.

Brett Catlin, Alaska’s Managing Director of Guest Products, explained it this way:

Saver guests will have the opportunity to select seats toward the back of the aircraft (not necessarily middle seats) when booking on . At launch, seats will not be available for selection through indirect channels [including global distribution systems, online travel agents, and travel management companies]. Hence the travel agent guide doesn’t reference seat assignments. It is our objective to ultimately have some seats available for selection through indirect channels.

I received further clarification here that this doesn’t mean people have to book Saver fares at alaskaair.com to get a seat assignment.  If they book through third parties, they’ll then just have to go to alaskaair.com and they’ll be able to get a seat there if one is available.

Updated 1/4: I have now confirmed the above is not correct. You cannot book through a third party and get seats after. Free seats are only available at the time of booking through Alaska directly, which is impressively unfriendly.

Other than allowing seat assignments, this looks like the Basic Economy offering at most other airlines.  From a technical perspective, it’s also handled similarly to how the other airlines do it.  Basic Economy will book into X class, but it will be at a discount off the regular selling coach fare.  Even though fares haven’t been filed yet so I can’t confirm, the way Alaska words this makes it sound like Saver fares will be offered on any selling coach fare, even the full fare.  United tried that and quickly backtracked, so I’m curious to see if this is actually how Alaska runs it.

As mentioned, Alaska will allow carry-on bags to be brought onboard for passengers on a Saver fare, but the only airline that doesn’t allow that today is United anyway.  So this is consistent with Delta and American.

This means there are really only a couple of differences between Alaska’s Saver fare and Basic Economy on the others. Here’s a chart.

AirlineSeatingCarry-OnsElite Qualifying Mile Earning
AlaskaSome seats at back for freeAllowedSame as coach
AmericanNone for free, paid regular seats at 48 hours before travelAllowed50 percent of coach
DeltaNone for free, paid regular seats at 7 days before travelAllowedSame as coach
UnitedNone for free, paid regular seats allowed anytimeNo50 percent of coach

As you can see, United’s Basic Economy fare is more restrictive in a few areas.  But when comparing to American and Delta, Alaska’s only differs in how seat assignments are handled, so let’s look at that closer.  In the first quarter earnings call, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Harrison said this:

I will tell you one thing that is very significantly different, which is really in the core of our brand, as when you book on Alaska Airlines, you get a seat assignment. And while that is not always the case today, if our flights are full but when you book the saver fare, you will get a seat assignment.

So for Andrew, seating really is a big differentiator, but I’m not so sure I think this will be better than what the other airlines have.  First of all, Alaska is going to have trouble messaging this.  “Fly our Saver fares and get a seat assignment, unlike on those other guys.”  That’s a good message, but the problem is the asterisk at the end that says “if it’s available.”

What if those seats are full?  This is similar to what I find obnoxious about preferred seating fees at the legacies today.  I’m repeatedly told by the other airlines that Basic Economy doesn’t include a seat assignment, so I should buy up if I want one of those.  But then when I buy up to coach, often there are no free seats left. 

If Alaska wants to message how it is different than the others, it’s going to have to talk about allowing seat assignments.  While we don’t know how many seats will be made available, it stands to reason that there will be plenty of times when seats won’t actually be available for those in Basic Economy.  And for those who book at third parties, they likely won’t know what’s available until after they’ve purchased and gone over to the Alaska website to figure it out.

If that’s the case, Alaska is going to have a hard time with the messaging on this.  If it can’t crow about it, then what’s the point in having the extra benefit?  I suppose we should wait to see how this is structured when it goes live next month, but for now it sounds like it could leave some people unhappy.

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