“What the heck is a diagcon look of an Alaska Airlines A321 first class product?” Don’t worry, I will get to that.
I had no expectation that I was going to write this review. I recently flew down to Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to hang out with Embraer and they were nice enough to put me in first class. When I was preparing for my flight home (I flew on Delta to FLL), I saw it was on an Alaska Airlines Airbus A321. Sweet. I knew that I would either be flying on one of Virgin America’s old birds with their first class product, or Alaska’s new product win/win. I did my thing and looked up the registration number, found the delivery date of the aircraft, and determined that I was going to be trying out the new product. Heck yea.
The good news and bad news is I just had a really long day, got very little sleep previously, and had just flown across the country the day before. That is bad since I wasn’t really prepared to do this review, but good since what better time to test out a product when you aren’t feeling 100%?
Previously, I had the chance to fly down to SFO to preview Alaska Airlines’ new first class product on their Airbus A321s. I was only able to sit down in a first class seats for a short amount of time, and obviously media flights like that don’t give you a real experience of how the product compares. Know what does? A six-hour flight from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Seattle (SEA), that’s what! And looky there, I just recently did flew that diagcon flight.
Okay… What is a Diagcon Flight?
So let’s talk about this made up word/definition I started using a while back: diagcon. You probably know about transcon flights right? Well, technically a diagcon is a transcon flight, but it’s longer, goes diagonally across the U.S., and I don’t like them much. I mostly use the term to describe my Seattle to Florida flights.
Over a three-year period, I found myself doing too many non-stop diagcons (for AirlineReporter, my dad lives there, other odds and ends, etc.) and I was getting sick and tired of doing them in single-aisle aircraft. Sure, the SEA-MIA flight might only be 30 min longer than a LAX-JFK flight (or SEA-JFK), but that extra 60 min (roundtrip) in the back of a 737 made me find the point where I actually wasn’t looking forward to the next diagcon flight (I wasn’t sure if I had that limit). So, for me, the definition is not just about flying diagonally, but also getting kind of tired of the routing / (lack of) aircraft choices.
So, how is this relevant to the story? Good question, and thank you for getting me back on track. We can conclude that I am not a huge fan of flying diagcons, and I was tired, so this really was the best combo to put this product to the test. Let’s continue…
Alaska Airbus A321 First Class Review Time!
Being based in Seattle, I fly Alaska quite a bit. It is the airline where I hold my miles, although I have never held status (I know, crazy right?). The vast majority of my Alaska flight experiences is in the back of the plane… in economy. Although it is always nice when I’ve had the chance to fly first class on Alaska, I have to say that the old hard product isn’t super special. You have the wider seat, with the 2-2 layout, and a good meal, but the tight seat pitch always shocked me. Unless I got a super duper upgrade deal (I don’t think that is their official name), then I didn’t see the value in spending the extra money to move up to first class. I was wondering if this new product might change my mind. I broke it down the pros and cons in easy-to-read bullet points:
What I liked about the new Alaska first class
- The footrest. I have always thought of these as sort of worthless and if anything, they take away my legroom. However, I found myself using it a few times and actually liking it — a lot. That said, I found that when the passenger in front of me reclined their seat (how dare they), then my footrest stopped working. Bummer. I follow up with Alaska after my flight and they confirmed that my footrest must have been faulty and after giving them the plane’s reg number, they were going to fix it.
- The tray table device holder. It took me a while longer to figure out how to use the device holder in first than it did in economy. However, it was quite slick once I got the hang of it. You can prop up your own device (think phone, iPad, Zune — I don’t judge) both when the tray is half and fully opened (scroll down a bit and there are some pics).
- The mood lighting. Don’t knock it. I used to make fun of airlines/manufactures promoting their mood lighting as marketing fluff. But I am a convert. My photo isn’t so great, but imagine a Virgin America A320 making a lighting baby with an Alaska 737-900 Boeing Sky Interior and you have it.
- The power box. Up until a few years back I never noticed the power boxes under the seats. Then my pal Jason Rabinowitz would always talk about them when we flew together and now I can’t not notice them. They can take away quite a bit of legroom (like they do in Alaska’s current product). With the new layout, they are tucked way up under the seat and at 6’1″, I couldn’t touch it — even when I tried (and I did). Bravo!
- Ice cream. I could have just led with this, called it a day, and been comfortable with my review. Ice cream at cruising altitude will never, ever get old and will always put a smile to my face. It might sound silly to some, but I feel that things like ice cream can take a first class experience to the next level — especially on a domestic flight.
- My overall food experience. If I had a “what I was okay with” section, this would be in it, but I didn’t want to create it just for one bullet. The presentation was great (three course), my squash soup was delish. But the main course of beef was too well done, dry, and didn’t come with enough sauce to save it. It was nice having the full meal service, and then later they came around with a basket of snacks to choose from.
- The Humor. I kept getting these little goodies and they kept being a little funny. Nothing super crazy, but almost dad-joke level of stuff, which I love. Does this sort of stuff matter? Heck yes it does… it leaves you with that sort of “warm and fuzzies” feeling towards a brand and shows an important attention to detail.
- BYOD Entertainment. If you have your own device, you know how to connect it to the internet, and you bring your own headphones… you are set. Alaska offers a great selection of free WiFi entertainment, available to all passengers.
What I disliked about the new Alaska Airlines first class
- The bulkhead. I don’t say this to be elitist, but I really do not like the new bulkhead, or the idea it doesn’t exist anymore. The best way I can describe it is a sun visor sticking down that provides no real privacy or separation. Ironically the passengers (in premium economy) directly behind me talked about how much they miss the bulkhead. It was just sort of awkward since their 3-3 layout lined up nicely (or badly, I guess) to the first’s 2-2. It made it easier for me to hear them and for them to look over my shoulder. Yea, yea, I know, these bulkheads allow more seats, so lower prices (stuff I preach about all the time), but it doesn’t mean I have to like them!
- The Windows tablet video player thingy. These are the handheld devices that Alaska hands out to free to first class passengers that have built-in entertainment. At 39, I sometimes find myself getting more frustrated with technology than I think I should. I tried using the main menus, but somehow ended up in a browser, and couldn’t get any movies to play. After clicking around semi-aimlessly, I figured it out — although my reward was a pretty limited selection. I am confused why these still exist. If they were super simple (push button, watch movie, yay), then sure. But if everyone has devices (i.e. their own phones), and these aren’t easy to use and have limited options…what is the point?
- No WiFi. The WiFi connecting our flight to the world didn’t work. That sucked. Even sucked more that none of the crew member mentioned that it was going to be down (or apologized). Personally, I am fine when my flight doesn’t have WiFi, but if you are planning to use the 6+ hour flight for work, this is a pretty big let down.
How Does the New First Class Stack Up?
Alaska’s new first class product (hard and soft) is very impressive. In my previous story on the product I questioned how much of Virgin’s influence might be found in the new Alaska and no matter how you feel, I think you will like what you find. I think this is really an “evolution-plus” of the previous product. It is more than just a simple refresh, or updating of textures/colors, but they are providing a leading product.
Of course one would expect a new product to be better than the one it replaces, but how does the new Alaska first class compare to the competition? And really, for those flying out of Seattle, the big question is how does it compete with Delta? After flying Delta’s first class right before the new Alaska first class, I feel pretty confident in my thoughts.
If you weren’t concerned about miles or status on either airline and just looked at the soft/hard product, overall I would choose to fly the new Alaska first class over Delta’s — no question (you also get access to Alaska’s lounges, which is a huge plus).
I think the biggest issue is consistency. You know what you will get on almost any Delta domestic first class product. Fly on an MD-80, a CRJ-700, a 737, or a 757, no matter when they were built, they are going give pretty much the same passenger experience (which I think they do a wonderful job). With Alaska, they have about 50 of their 71 Airbus converted and when asked they told me that they are “still discussing plans for the 737-800/900 fleet interiors.” That means, it might be a challenge (even for you AvGeek pros) to ensure you will be flying with the new first class.
Fleet change doesn’t come easy, nor happen quickly (especially when Alaska has over 30 737 Max, that are delayed). Once Alaska is able to update their fleet, and provide a consistent first class flight experience, they will be in a much better competitive position. Not to say that they aren’t too bad now, but if they wait too long for the fleet-wide upgrade, that just gives the competition more time to come up with their own improvements.
Have you had a chance to fly it yet? Or even have some thoughts about the older product and how it compares to the competition? Leave your thoughts in the comments!