Why Little Alaska Airlines Has the Happiest Customers in the Skies

The Western-U.S.-based airline has one of the most valuable loyalty programs in the business. Now it"™s expanding routes across the continent.

It practically goes without saying: American airlines have a public-relations crisis on their hands.

Almost every week since a passenger was bloodied and dragged off a United Airlines Inc. flight in early April, another outrage has swept the internet. Families kicked off planes because of birthday cake. Girls in leggings denied boarding. Heated confrontations about strollers. All-out brawls amid tighter-than-ever seats.

But in what feels like a parallel universe, one airline is racking up nearly every industry accolade. So far this year, Alaska Airlines has been recognized by SmarterTravel, the Points Guy, and FlyerTalk"”three authoritative aviation website"”along with U.S. News & World Report, as either being the best U.S. airline of 2017 or having the best rewards program. In some cases it claimed both titles. It has the No. 1 on-time performance record seven years running, according to FlightStats. And this month it earned J.D. Power"™s highest customer satisfaction rating among traditional (nonbudget) airlines in North America"”for the 10th year in a row.

To those who frequent the airline, Alaska"™s success is no surprise. In the Pacific Northwest, where the company is based, Alaska Airlines is considered a homegrown hero of sorts; locals are as loyal to the airline as they are to the record-breaking star quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson, who happens to be Alaska"™s celebrity spokesman. (His official title is "Alaska Airlines chief football officer.")

To everyone else, Alaska can sneak up like a sleeper hit from the indie film festival circuit"”one nobody had heard about until Oscar season. But that will change: Parent company Alaska Air Group Inc. recently acquired Virgin America Inc. and is engaged in aggressive cross-country expansion. It"™s not just for West Coast-based commuters anymore.

Compared with Delta Air Lines Inc., which operates more than 15,000 daily flights across its network, Alaska is still small-scale, with 1,200 flights per day. But it"™s the only major U.S. carrier that"™s seen an uptick in mainline passenger revenue (from nonpartner flights) in the last full year, and in 2015 the airline experienced a net income surge of 40 percent. Carrying capacity is growing 20 percent year-over-year (not including the Virgin America acquisition), and in 2017, Alaska and Virgin America will jointly launch in more than 40 new markets…

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