Earlier this year, it was announced that Alaska Airlines will seek full membership in the Oneworld airline alliance, and their entry was expected to be complete in the summer of 2021.
After a little bit of uncertainty on the exact timing, with the entry date brought forward to late 2020 and then pushed back into 2021 again, it has now been confirmed that Alaska Airlines will officially become a Oneworld member as of March 31, 2021.
Mileage Plan has long been known for its independent assortment of global airline partners, so the news that the airline will formally join Oneworld is likely to have major ramifications on how we earn and redeem Alaska miles going forward.
Book Alaska Sweet Spots Soon!
With news of Alaska Airlines joining Oneworld on March 31, 2021, we’re quite likely to hear about impending changes to Mileage Plan in the near future, especially as Alaska has usually been pretty good about giving members advance notice about upcoming changes to the program.
For Mileage Plan members based in Canada, this news may put your redemption plans on a bit of a tighter squeeze.
After all, the primary strategy for racking up Alaska miles here in Canada is to apply for the MBNA Alaska Airlines MasterCard on three-month cycles, building your balance up in chunks of 30,000 at a time. It can take a period of concerted effort to rack up enough miles for some of Alaska’s best sweet spots, especially if you’re booking for more than one passenger.
If you originally planned to save up enough Alaska miles over a longer timescale, it might be wise to reexamine those plans. For example, if you originally wanted to use Alaska miles to book an Asia trip with Cathay Pacific First Class as the outbound and Japan Airlines First Class as the return (for 70,000 miles each), then it could be wise to consider choosing only one of those sweet spots to book as a one-way and supplementing that trip with an Aeroplan one-way flight on the way back instead.
In terms of when to travel, remember that you can book tickets about one year before departure, so you can use your Alaska miles towards any trip in 2021, or perhaps even into 2022, if you’re booking by March 2021.
Below, you’ll find my breakdown of the most outstanding Alaska redemptions under the current program, as well as my analysis of what is likely to happen to many of Alaska’s unique non-Oneworld partner airlines, which was written back when the news of Alaska’s entry into Oneworld was first announced.
If the timeline of March 31, 2021 for Alaska’s entry into Oneworld is indeed respected, then I’d expect we’ll have some clarity on these details very soon.
Alaska Mileage Plan Redemptions Are Very Likely to Change
Let’s talk about what concerns us most as travellers who primarily redeem points for travel, and who place a particularly high value on the versatility of the current Alaska Mileage Plan program: full membership in the Oneworld alliance is very likely to bring an end to Alaska’s current model of independently-negotiated redemption award charts.
Alaska is known for charging varying mileage price points for redemptions on its 16 airline partners, which has resulted in some excellent award chart sweet spots for travelling on some of the world’s best airlines, such as:
70,000 Alaska miles for Cathay Pacific First Class between North American and Hong Kong, followed by a stopover, and then a Cathay Pacific business class flight to South Africa or the Middle East
70,000–75,000 Alaska miles for Japan Airlines First Class between North America and Tokyo, followed by a stopover, and then a Japan Airlines business class flight to the rest of Asia
50,000 Alaska miles for Cathay Pacific business class between North America and Asia
60,000–65,000 Alaska miles for Japan Airlines business class between North America and Asia
55,000 Alaska miles for Qantas business class between North America and Australia
80,000–100,000 Alaska miles for Singapore Airlines business class between North America and Singapore
Those are just a few examples of the exceptionally low rates that Alaska charges for premium class travel and the excellent value that results.
When the airline gains full membership in Oneworld, it’s quite likely that these award charts would be replaced by a unified chart for Oneworld partner flights, and that the number of miles required will only go in one direction – upwards – as a result.
I say this especially because of the close alignment between Alaska and American Airlines, which was a major impetus for the airline joining Oneworld in the first place (as we’ll discuss below). As a point of comparison, American Airlines AAdvantage currently charges 60,000–70,000 miles for one-way business class flights to Asia, and 80,000–110,000 miles for one-way First Class flights to Asia.
I find it highly unlikely that American would be okay with having their close partner airline offering steeply discounted award rates compared to their own, so I can definitely see many of Alaska’s sweet spots (like the 70,000 miles for Cathay Pacific First Class & business class to South Africa, for example) meeting their end when the airline’s entry into Oneworld becomes official.
That’s to say nothing of Alaska’s generous stopover and routing policies either – the ability to add a stopover on a one-way award is extremely valuable, and so too is the opportunity to book creative routings via the Alaska search engine. These are also under imminent threat if American Airlines, which does not allow any stopovers and enforces extremely tight routing policies, had any say in the matter.
We can certainly hope that Alaska will retain as much independence in setting out their new Oneworld award charts as possible, but for now, the message is very clear: it’s time to earn and burn your Alaska miles for travel under the currently available amazing sweet spots as much as possible.
Looking ahead, there are a few bright spots that could emerge from Alaska’s entry into Oneworld, such as:
We may be able to combine Oneworld partners on a single award, rather than being limited to one partner per award ticket as things currently stand
The new redemption structure could allow redemptions across the entire Oneworld route network, rather than the current status quo when each partner only allows a certain part of its route network to be booked with Alaska miles
A potential Oneworld multi-carrier award chart to play with
Most significantly, the ability to redeem miles for a greater range of airlines – Qatar Airways and their Qsuites business class product, widely considered the world’s best, would be a major plus.
But on the other side of that coin, I think it’s fair to say that some of Alaska’s existing airline partnerships could also face the chopping block…
What Happens to Alaska’s Non-Oneworld Partnerships?
Full membership in the Oneworld alliance will be at odds with Alaska’s current partnership model, which includes 16 global airline partners spanning across the three major airline alliances.
In its press release, Alaska states the following:
Also, you might be wondering about our partnerships with our current Global Partners that are not a part of oneworld. We value the benefits those partnerships provide our guests, and we’ll continue to maintain them as long as it’s mutually beneficial to do so.
However, in my view, the airline is quite likely to face pressure from other Oneworld members to sever these partnerships in the long run.
Let’s start with the obvious one: Alaska’s partnership with LATAM, which is exiting Oneworld on May 1, 2020 to get cozy with Delta, is almost certainly going to be on the way out.
What about the others? I could definitely see Qatar Airways objecting to Alaska’s partnership with Emirates, for example, putting that relationship (and thus the ability to redeem Alaska miles for Emirates First Class) under threat.
Singapore Airlines is the other big question: the Alaska–Singapore relationship only recently went into full swing, so it would be a shame for it to take a backseat due to Alaska’s full membership in Oneworld, if it doesn’t get phased out entirely.
For now, Alaska has announced that “our 16 Global Partners are very valuable and we’ll keep them as long as they continue to provide a unique value to our guests”, and I do believe that they’ll be doing their utmost to keep their partnerships around as long as it’s viable to do so, but there’s no denying that the future doesn’t look bright for the non-Oneworld partnerships under a long-term view.
In the Background: The Alaska + American Partnership
In some ways, if there were one global airline alliance that has always been viewed as a likely eventual home for Alaska Airlines, Oneworld would be it.
Alaska has historically maintained close ties with American Airlines, a major Oneworld player, and has also struck up partnerships with many other Oneworld carriers over the years, including Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, British Airways, Qantas, and Finnair.
Recently, the airline’s relationship with American Airlines has been on somewhat rocky ground due to their competition with each other, and it was even announced that the ability to earn Alaska and American miles on each other’s respective flights would be severed as of Spring 2020.
Well, it appears that they’ve since realized that they’re better off together than apart, especially in light of the efforts by big bad Delta to bully both of them: Delta has expanded aggressively at Alaska’s hub airport of Seattle, and has moved to poach LATAM, South America’s largest carrier, away from their close ties with American and the Oneworld alliance and into an exclusive joint-venture relationship with Delta.
By the way the press release is written, Alaska and American have certainly wisened up to the old saying of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, striking up “an exciting West Coast international alliance” between them, with Alaska’s entry into the Oneworld alliance as a major step in that process.
With Alaska Airlines expecting to join Oneworld on March 31, 2021, I’m sure there will be a lot more details filtering through in the coming months about the future changes to the Alaska Mileage Plan program.
Alaska has mostly been diligent about providing as much notice as possible about award redemption changes, so I would expect that the existing redemption structure will remain in place for another few months’ time, at the very least.
With that in mind, you should definitely be looking to aggressively earn and burn Alaska miles throughout the rest of the year (don’t take mercy on that three-month cycle on the MBNA Alaska) and take advantage of the killer sweet spots in the current program as much as possible, since the outlook for the new award chart under Oneworld membership doesn’t look too favourable in my view.
(banner image by OneMoreWeekToGo)