AOL Mystery Flyer: Alaska Airlines Report Card

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No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question: Is there a price for nice?

Read on to see how Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air scored on Saturday's flight to Portland:

How It Works:

After each of the ten flights I'm taking over the coming weeks, I'll judge the airlines on six areas of customer service, using a scale of one to five. My goal along the way is to be an average passenger with normal travel requests and questions. In no way am I going to bother flight attendants and airline personnel with unusual demands; I know these are very busy people. I'm not looking to push airline staff to the limit, but simply to judge their friendliness during the most common travel interactions faced by the flying public on a routine flight.

Here's how to decipher my 1-5 rating system:

1/5 means a flat out rude reaction to my requests
2/5 means an unfriendly reaction, although not necessarily rude
3/5 means a neutral reaction to my requests
4/5 means a friendly reaction with a smile
5/5 means friendly customer service that goes that extra distance
1. Operator's response to pre-flight requests (such as a seat change) when I called the airline's toll-free number the day of departure.
3½/5: I called prior to my flight to ask about carry-on luggage and checked luggage allowances, as well as onboard beverages and snacks. This was my first interaction with the airline (I'd never flown Alaska Airlines before), and a very neutral one. I was asked to repeat my questions once or twice, and the answers given were a little abrupt, but overall the call was fine.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
5/5: There were only two people ahead of me in the "agent assist" line (for full-service check-in) at San Francisco airport when I arrived for my afternoon flight to Portland. Nobody was at self check-in, so I was called over to that line when a kiosk opened up. I appreciated that the agent didn't ask me to use self check-in, and instead went straight to requesting my name and destination so she could pull up my itinerary. I requested a window seat (I'd had an aisle) and she told me that an exit row was available if I'd like that. Always a nice treat.

I showed her my carry-on, fearing I would have to check it, since this was a regional jet and my bag was slightly overstuffed due to some retail therapy in San Francisco. She advised me to gate-check my bag to avoid the $15 checked luggage fee, a nice gesture that made me feel like she was on my side. I made my usual inquiries about onboard snacks and drinks, and she told me that beverages were free (including wine and beer, since it was a Horizon flight), that there was a cost for snacks, and that the airline was cash-free.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
4/5: At the gate, there was a couple in front of me asking questions about a Palm Springs flight leaving from the gate next door, so I stood behind them and waited for my turn to ask my questions about my carry-on bag, drinks, etc. (I can only imagine how tired the airlines are of hearing the same questions over and over -- and yes, I realize I am making more work for them. But the research must continue on behalf of passengers who are not experienced travelers.)

The Alaska Airlines agent looked at me when she finished answering the couple's questions (their flight was about to start boarding) and asked: "Do you have a quick question?" I thought this was an odd way to greet me, since I obviously had a question if I was standing in line. I told her I was concerned that my carry-on would not fit overhead; she confirmed that it would not fit, said it wasn't a problem, and told me I could gate-check the bag. Then she came out from behind the counter to put a tag on it, a nice gesture since she was clearly busy with the Palm Springs flight and could have handed me the tag and told me to attach it myself.

As I had just learned that I'd actually be flying on Horizon Air, an Alaska Airlines sister company that flies their regional routes, I asked a few questions about the mileage program. The agent answered them in a friendly but slightly rushed way; I did realize she had other things to do.

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
5/5: I was warmly greeted when entering the plane, and shortly after taking my seat, I asked an FA if it was okay to use the lavatory (I had the feeling we were about to push back); she was friendly and said it was no problem. After we'd taken off and were allowed to move about the cabin, I went to the front where the FA was preparing the beverage cart. I interrupted her in the cramped galley of the CRJ700 with my now standard: "I have a pill to take, may I please have a glass of water?" line. She did not bat an eye, although this was clearly an interruption of her routine. She opened a package to get a cup for me and filled it with ice and water.

I felt somewhat embarrassed about going to the front and asking for water instead of waiting for my turn, but I do it because a "real" passenger might actually need water right away for a medical reason. The FA did not make me feel I had done something wrong, and she was also very friendly and patient answering my questions about the small plane while getting my water.

When she came through the aisle with the actual beverage service, she remembered me and asked: "Would you like some more water?" I requested that as well as a tomato juice, and asked for an extra pack of the free snacks, to which she responded: "No problem." Later, the FAs came back down the aisle with the cart and again asked if people needed anything; I asked for another small can of tomato juice, which she gave me. I noticed that she shook it for me before placing it on the tray.

Later, when I asked for a cup of hot tea because the plane was really cold, the FA laughed and said, "Not a problem." If she was starting to find me a little demanding, at least she put a positive spin on it.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
5/5: Interactions seemed very positive and professional throughout the flight. While we were still at the gate, an FA offered to take a photo for a father and son who were on their first flight together. And I overheard the FAs being very casual and friendly with passengers, greeting them with lines like: "How are we doing here?" and "Your shirt is so colorful, I like it!" and "Now, what can I get you guys?"

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
5/5: When I arrived in Portland, I didn't have a connecting flight to make. And I didn't see agents at the nearby gates. So I went to the departures desk and asked at a check-in kiosk where to find the baggage claim. Though there were clearly marked signs, the agent pointed me in the right direction with a friendly wave.

My journey isn't over yet. Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky
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