Comprehensive Guide to Airlines’ Pandemic Adaptations: Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Response

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Updated March 16, 2021

This is part one of six of an evaluation of the Coronavirus responses from the largest US airlines. The COVID crisis has hit airlines especially hard by causing an unprecedented decline in air travel demand in record time. Much of the airline industry has had to receive a government bailout as part of the CARES Act package. Airlines have had to adapt quickly to the current environment by reassuring customers that they are safe during travel while also incentivizing them to return to air travel.

Part one will evaluate Alaska Airlines COVID Response (in this series the other airlines I will cover are American Airlines, Delta, Jetblue, Southwest and United Airlines). The topics to be covered for each are: Elite Status Extensions, Cancellation policy, Lounge changes, credit card adjustments, enhanced cleaning, mask procedures, CARES Act information and any other changes.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

Elite Status:

The company released a statement on April 7 that members’ current Mileage Plan tier status will be valid until Dec. 31, 2021. In regards to individuals that signed up for a status match between Dec. 2019 and March 2020, their status trial will be valid until Dec. 31, 2021. All normal status benefits will apply with this extension except the 50,000 bonus miles upon reaching 75k level. At the time of the press release Alaska Air stated they had no plans to offer reduced status qualification requirements. However, for the remainder of 2020 Mileage Plan members will get a 50% Elite Qualifying Miles bonus on all flights, which can get you to a higher tier in less time.

Cancellation and Change Policy:

When a cancellation occurs, refund options can vary widely depending on whether the traveler or airline initiates it. With the steep decline in air travelers over the last couple months, flight changes and cancellations are becoming very common. In these instances, if Alaska Air cancels or changes your flight and the new flight works for you or the schedule is less than an hour different from the original booking then there is not much recourse. However, if the new flight schedule is more than an hour different there are a few options: ask for a different flight, cancel and get a credit for a future travel date, or cancel and get a refund to the original payment method.

On the other hand, it gets a little more complicated if the traveler initiates the cancellation. All reservation types made on or prior to March 31, 2021 for any travel through Feb. 2022, can be canceled without a fee and the refund will be deposited into the My Account wallet or choose to get a certificate to be used on future travel. Nonrefundable First Class, main cabin, and award tickets for travel through Feb. 2022 can also change itinerary without a fee, though a difference in fare may occur. For travel that is canceled, new travel dates can be up to one year from original travel dates.

Alaska Airlines announced on September 1, 2020 that it would permanently eliminate change fees for all domestic and international tickets. All Main and First Class tickets are included in this new policy. The policy (Peace of Mind Waiver) listed in the paragraph above still applies to all tickets purchased through March 2021. Saver Fare tickets purchased through March 31, 2021 cannot be changed but can be canceled for future travel credit under the Peace of Mind waiver. Starting April 1, 2021, Saver Fare tickets will not be able to be changed or canceled.

Lounges:

Lounge memberships that were active as of April 1 will have their expiration dates automatically extended by six months. Digital cards will update in your account and in the mobile app no later than May 1, 2020. There have been some changes to the check-in process. The fingerprint scanners as part of check-in are not currently in use. Staff will have the traveler hold their boarding pass to scan it, thus reducing the amount of touching.

Inside the lounge there have been changes as well. There will be signs to suggest social distancing by patrons. In high-density areas some of the seating and tables will be removed to limit attendance to 50% of capacity. There will be more frequent cleaning of surfaces throughout the lounge with wipes or sanitizing solutions. Hand sanitizer will also be available inside the lounge. Staff will continue to wear Personal Protective Equipment such as masks and gloves.

Only single serving pre-packaged food options will be available for the time being. Self-serve stations will no longer be in use until further notice. Coffee and tea will still be available but only in disposable cups. A new, clean cup will be used each time. Free-standing water towers have been taken away and travelers are urged to use water bottle filling stations or have a bottle filled at the bar.

As of March 16, 2021, five of Alaska Airlines seven lounges have reopened. The two that remain closed are the ones at JFK/NYC airport and Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Concourse C.

Alaska Airlines Credit Card:

For companion certificates that were set to expire in 2020, they can now be used for travel through November 26, 2021.

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

Cleaning Protocols:

In cooperation with Infectious Diseases Medical Directors from the University of Washington, Alaska Airlines has expanded its aircraft cleaning protocols. Electrostatic disinfectant sprayers are currently in use to disinfect surfaces throughout the cabin. These sprayers use a high-grade cleaning solution that has EPA approval and is safe. A dedicated cleaning crew is utilized between flights to clean the most frequent high-touch cabin areas including employee areas. Once cleaning protocols are complete, the crew lead does an internal audit of the aircraft and signs a cleaning certificate.

Crews are also utilizing Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) testing, which measures the amount of actively growing microorganisms on surfaces, to ensure that the cleaning procedures were effective to kill and remove bacteria and viruses. This testing is to ensure that the cleanliness of cabin areas are on par with an environment such as a hospital operating room.

Alaska Airlines states that all of their aircraft contain a two HEPA filter system and that the entire fleet has the most up to date technology available. HEPA filters are effective at removing up to 99.9% of bacteria, viruses and fungi from the air. Per the company, cabin air completes a full exchange every 2-3 minutes, or 20-30 times per hour. The filtration system utilized in the aircraft is very similar to the kind used in a hospital operating room.

Per Alaska Airlines, a workstation cleaning program has been implemented to ensure that check-in and gate counters are cleaned with disinfectant and frequent intervals. The company has stated that they are working in tandem with airports’ janitorial staff to ensure that lobbies and gate areas are kept clean.

Masks and other PPE:

In line with CDC guidelines, Alaska Airlines made it mandatory for employees and passengers to wear a face covering or mask anytime six feet of social distancing is not achievable. This includes at the check-in counter, lounges, the gate area, jetbridge, onboard the plane, and baggage claim. There is an exception for when food or drink are being consumed, or if a medical condition hinders their ability to wear or remove a face mask. This new, temporary policy went into effect on May 4 for employees and May 11 for travelers (most up to date information below). Guests are expected to provide their own face masks but Alaska Airlines will have a supply if travelers forget theirs.

In addition, employees that are serving food and drinks in the lounges will wear gloves. Also flight attendants will be required to wear gloves during in-flight service.

UPDATE: Effective Aug. 7, masks or face coverings (that cover both the nose and mouth) are required for every traveler that is 2 years of age and older. All exceptions to the previous guideline have been removed and if a traveler refuses to abide by the rule, they can be denied boarding and/or future travel with the airline. The airline states that masks that have a valve, ones that do not cover both nose and mouth and face shields worn without a mask are unacceptable.

CARES Act:

On April 23, Alaska Airlines and the US Treasury Department agreed on terms for the company’s involvement in the Payroll Support Program (PSP), which is apart of the CARES Act. As part of the agreement, Alaska Air will get a total of $992 million, with just under $725 million being a grant and $267 million in the form of a low interest loan. The airline had to sign a 10 year promissory note (promise to pay back) on the loan and to make available to the Treasury the ability to receive a certain number of non-voting Alaska Airlines shares (846,748) at a specific price ($31.61) which total about 10% ($26,765,704)  of the loan amount. 

The total amount of the agreement was calculated to cover approximately 70% of the budgeted personnel and benefits expenses through Sept. 30, 2020. They used the data from April-Sept. 2019 as a reference point. As part of the participation in this program there cannot be any involuntary changes to number of employees or pay rate through Sept. 30, 2020. Also there has been a pause on dividend disbursement and stock buybacks through Sept. 30, 2021. Limitations for executive compensation has been put in place through March 24, 2022. Alaska Air Group has also stated that it plans to apply for another $1.128 billion of federally backed loans from the Treasury as part of another program under the CARES Act.

The PSP extension was approved by the government and in January 2021, Alaska Air got its payments and thus should be able to recall all furloughed workers. This extension does expire on March 31, 2021. As part of this extension, the carrier received a total of $532.7 million with $129.8 million in the form of a low interest loan. In exchange, the airline had to give 12.9 million warrants for common stock at a warrant price of $52.25 to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Other Changes:

  1. As of January 7, 2021, the airline is no longer blocking middle/aisle seats depending on the size of the aircraft.
  2. First class seat selections have a cap at 50% of capacity.
  3. All contents in the back of seats have been removed except safety cards, to reduce germ spread through high-touch points.
  4. Some onboard food and beverage services may have a temporary reduction. No food or beverage service for flights under 350 miles. For flights that are more than 350 miles the options vary by seat class but may include a bottle of water, sealed can of beer and/or a single serving pre-packaged snack.
  5. Limited upgrades due to seat restrictions to enable social distancing.
  6. No refilling cups.
  7. Temporary stop to blanket and warm towel service.
  8. Installation of signs (including on the floor) to encourage six feet of social distancing.
  9. Hand sanitizer stations will be available.
  10. Temporary pause of inflight tablet rentals (not applicable on flights to Florida and Hawaii)
  11. Companion certificates with expiration dates in 2020 are now valid through Dec. 31, 2020 and can be used to book new travel until Nov. 26, 2021. If a flight is canceled that includes a company certificate, a replacement will be provided within seven business days that expires at the end of 2020.
  12. Beginning June 30th, upon check-in Alaska Air will require travelers to complete a health agreement. This states that the passenger has not had COVID-19 symptoms within the last 72 hours, nor come into contact with a symptomatic person and also makes the customer agree to being a mask or face covering.
  13. On September 30, the airline announced a new partnership with Carbon Health to administer rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers traveling to Hawaii. A negative test within 72 hours of the final leg of your trip to Hawaii would allow you to skip the 14 day quarantine. This test usually results in about two hours and costs about $135. Hawaii reopened to travelers on October 15. As of December 14, this includes flights from the West Coast to Maui, Oahu and Kona. However, Kauai is not participating in this program and all Alaska Airlines flights to Kauai have been suspended.
  14. As of February 5, 2021, the carrier started offering international passengers the opportunity to use VeriFLY mobile health passport to keep all required COVID documents in one place. This can help with faster verification but using this service does not exempt a passenger from providing all health documents required by the CDC.
Photo by Max Delsid on Unsplash

Conclusion of Alaska Airlines COVID Response:

Alaska Airlines COVID response has been far reaching and as one of their articles stated they have enacted more than 100 ways to help ensure travelers and employees safety while traveling. The company is showing effort to protect patrons and staff while also trying to incentivize customers to resume air travel. In the other part of this series, I will evaluate how the other five airlines compare to Alaska Airline’s response.

The Alaska Airlines’ website, Newsroom page and the US Treasury website were the sources for the information above.

American Airlines Response

Delta Airlines Response

JetBlue Airways Response

Southwest Airlines Response

United Airlines Response

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