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N913AK on its takeoff roll from SEA on its inaugural revenue flight for Alaska Airlines on March 1, 2021. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer Lindgren

N913AK on its takeoff roll from SEA on its inaugural revenue flight for Alaska Airlines on March 1, 2021 – Photo: Jeremy Dwyer Lindgren

On March 1 at 6:30 a.m., Alaska Airlines’ first Boeing 737 MAX 9 took to the skies from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on a flight to San Diego. That flight made Alaska the third U.S. carrier to place the MAX into service since the plane’s grounding was lifted at the end of 2020, and it was the first airline to place the plane into service that didn’t receive any of its orders prior to the grounding in March 2019.

What was it like? Alaska did invite the local news media and AvGeek outlets to cover the departure, but the event was tastefully subdued overall.  The worst part? Getting up at 2:30 a.m. to get to the airport on time. The best part? The flight itself, of course. As we reviewed back in 2019 before the grounding, the MAX offers a fine passenger experience, even more so now that the tragic issues with the aircraft’s avionics have been sorted and certified.

The flight crew consisted of Alaska's fleet captain and chief training pilot

The flight crew consisted of Alaska’s fleet captain and chief training pilot

During the standard preflight passenger briefing, the pilots commented on how much they liked flying the new aircraft, saying that Alaska did 50 hours of proving flights over 19,000 miles with that plane prior to putting it into line service, including several flights for employees. They also noted the MAX’s greater efficiency, saving 15% in fuel costs over the prior model.

As I experienced on Icelandair's Max 8, the plane is noticeably quieter in the cabin than the NG series planes the MAX replaces, even when seated near the engines

As I experienced on Icelandair’s Max 8, the plane is noticeably quieter in the cabin than the NG-series planes the MAX replaces, even when seated near the engines

I flew in coach, seated in row 13 both ways, in the aisle southbound and at the window back to SEA. If you’re familiar with Alaska’s current 737 NG cabin  configurations, the overall layout is the same, save for some nice detail improvements, including additional USB ports that are much more accessible, and a clever device holder in the seatbacks. All in all, the MAX 9 provides a very comfortable and surprisingly quiet passenger experience.

This was my first commercial flight in nearly 12 months, and the biggest change I noticed was how often the flight attendants came through the cabin to pick up trash. Well, that, and there were no hot meals, alcoholic beverages, or poured soft drinks offered – water and soda were dispensed in single-serving cans or bottles.

Alaska has orders to take delivery of 68 MAX 9s, with options for an additional 52, so the MAX plays a primary role in the airline’s plan to modernize its fleet. Alaska plans to eventually divest itself of most of the Airbus A319/320ceos it acquired as part of its acquisition of Virgin America, coming closer to being an all-Boeing airline once again, although it does look like they’ll hang onto the 10 A321neos in their fleet for now.

The outbound flight to San Diego was quite full, with plenty of AvGeeks and Alaska Air crew in evidence. The return flight was considerably less full, more in line with what I’m told are more normal passenger loads given current COVID concerns.

Alaska is currently using N913AK on two daily roundtrip routes from Seattle; flights 482 and 539 to and from San Diego in the morning and early afternoon, and flights 398 and 705 to and from Las Angeles in the late afternoon and evening.

Here we are on the base turn over Elliott Bay in Seattle on the way back to SEA. The MAX's engines are considerably larger than the NG

Here we are on the base turn over Elliott Bay in Seattle on the way back to SEA. The MAX’s engines are considerably larger than the NG.

A Qatar 777-300ER receives a water-cannon salute as it taxis to its gate at Sea-Tac Airport

Qatar Airways (QR) launched service from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, to Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 29, 2021, two months ahead of schedule. It also marked the first new service to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Inaugural flights are always a joy to cover – you get to see other media colleagues and friends, there’s always a bit of a festival atmosphere, and, best of all, you get to go out onto the ramp at a busy international airport to take photos and enjoy the experience of being airside.

The 777 is an imposingly large aircraft

The 777 is an imposingly large aircraft

Qatar now serves the three largest cities on the U.S. West Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. The Seattle service will be served by Boeing 777s with 42 seats in Qsuite business class and 312 seats in economy. The Qsuite seat layout is a 1-2-1 configuration, and economy is 3-4-3. Seattle service begins at four times weekly (Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), and is scheduled to switch to daily service on July 1.

The new Seattle service will offer connections from the U.S. to global destinations in Africa, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, among others. The national carrier of the State of Qatar continues to rebuild its network, which currently stands at over 120 destinations with plans to increase to more than 130 by the end of March.

Before the inaugural event, I had the opportunity to chat on the phone with Mark Drusch, SVP of Revenue Management, Alliances and Strategy at Qatar Airways, who’s based in Doha.

“We understand that there are Somalis in Seattle who want to go home — we know where our customers need to fly. We have flown a robust schedule even in the depths of covid, so we’ve had our finger on the pulse of the market and have been able to accurately gauge the movements that are required,” he said, citing strong pent-up demand for travel to East Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.

Further, covid has opened up a wave of interest in travel to exotic/under-visited destinations. “We have got a massive developing market between the U.S. and more exotic beach destinations like the Seychelles,” Drusch said. ‘People want to go someplace a little more isolated, and that market has developed quite nicely.”

He also cited the attractiveness for the airline of the strong business environment in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. “This area has not had a problem during the pandemic,” he said, adding that “the Pacific Northwest will rebound faster because of the kinds of businesses we have up here.”

The 773's cargo hold was filled with containers. Qatar flies the large jets, in part, to maximize its cargo-handling opportunities

The 77W’s cargo hold was filled with containers. Qatar flies the large jets, in part, to maximize its cargo-handling opportunities.

Cargo is the one aviation sector that has seen growth since the emergence of COVID-19. “Our cargo market has just boomed during the pandemic. We are the largest passenger/freighter operation in the world, we were experts already in carrying cargo on freighters and passenger planes, and we’re flying the 773, which has lots of cargo capacity.”

Asked if Qatar sees itself as being in competition with Emirates for connecting passenger traffic, Drush said, “Lets be honest – the airline industry is very competitive, but we’ve been different than Emirates – they’ve pulled back from the U.S. and Europe. We’ve continued to be in the market for our customers; in the middle of covid we repatriated almost 2 million people.”

The 777-300 cockpit is also quite spacious

The 777-300 cockpit is also quite spacious

Qatar Airways Privilege Club and Alaska Mileage Plan members can now earn frequent flyer miles on both carriers. Beginning March 31, 2021, members can also redeem frequent flyer miles on both carriers’ full networks and elite oneworld Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald status perks, including lounge access.

Of interest to those in the Pacific Northwest who are Alaska Airlines frequent fliers, Qatar is part of the oneworld alliance, which Alaska recently joined. Alaska Airlines will connect customers from the U.S. West Coast to Doha and beyond via its other hubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, complementing existing strategic partnerships with JetBlue and oneworld carrier American Airlines.

Plane Talking with mom podcast
For years, I have been told that AirlineReporter needs to do their own podcast. Sigh. Why? I just couldn’t imagine adding on something else. Having to get guests, come up with scripts, and the worst part — editing the audio! I have often asked our writers if they might have an interest, but no takers. Well, I am finally giving in and I have created our very first podcast, called Plane Talking with Mom. So what makes this podcast different?

#1 I talk about airplanes with my mom — 100% exclusive. No one else has my mom talking about planes.

#2 I am not editing crap (and you can tell). You get everything. All the “ums” and “uhs,” the mess ups.

#3 My mom doesn’t even like airplanes. So many podcasts have experts or at least people who are interested in talking about the topic. Booooooring. Hear directly from a person who might care the least, and doesn’t even like to fly.

Some reviews are already in…

“It was interesting… at least you and your mom had a nice time” – My Wife

“(It’s) purrr (fect)” – My Cat (aka #A380cat)

“What… I… listened to is… the… nice… podcast… will… listen… again” – My Friend Nick

“The combination of airplanes, birds, and moms is a real winner. A++” – David P Brown

Give it a listen… it is the best podcast we have ever done!!! Oh yea, it is not actually up at any of the places you normally listen to podcasts, so you just have to listen to it via our site.

So… what do you think (remember my mom will be reading the comments too)? But before you make any comment, make sure you listen to the end…

Late last year we spent a fun couple of days flying long-haul with Finnair and interviewing the head of their flagship Airbus A350 fleet. But we never actually flew the A350 ourselves, since Finnair’s US routes were all handled by their older A330s. That changed a month ago, when Finnair re-launched flights to LAX after a long hiatus and gave the honor to the A350. Obviously we weren’t going to miss the chance to cover the inaugural, and the folks at Finnair gave us the chance.

The onboard product lived up to the hype, with universal aisle access, lie-flat seats, Nordic style, and even a northern lights simulation on the ceiling. And it was just as fun covering Finnair’s pre-flight festivities on the ground. Clearly this route was a big deal for the Finnair team, getting the honorific flight numbers AY01 and AY02.

Read on for the full scoop on Finnair’s (re)inaugural celebration of its service from Los Angeles to Helsinki.