- Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines are in competition to be the airline of the West Coast.
- Both are similar but each has its strengths like Alaska has a greater West Coast route network.
- Southwest is a great option for leisure travelers but Alaska has more perks for business flyers.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
All the major US airlines serve this important region of the country but two are battling for dominance, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
Alaska is based in Seattle, although its name suggests otherwise, and is a mid-tier US airline with the bulk of its operations on the West Coast.
Southwest, on the other hand, is the country’s largest low-cost carrier with a nationwide presence. And while the West Coast is an important region for the airline, it’s just one of many Southwest serves.
Both carriers have sought to grow market share on the West Coast during the pandemic. Southwest added Santa Barbara and Fresno to its California route network while Alaska has added routes from existing cities.
I flew on both airlines this year to see which one was truly the airline of the West Coast. Here’s what I found.
West Coast connectivity: Alaska serves 29 cities up and down the coast, including smaller cities like Everett, Washington; Santa Rosa, California; and Medford, Oregon.
Southwest serves 15 West Coast cities and plans to serve two more this summer. Bellingham, Washington flights will also open sometime this year.
Winner: Alaska Airlines. The airline’s connectivity between West Coast cities large and small cannot be beaten by Southwest’s existing network.
What comes with the ticket: Every Southwest ticket includes free seat selection anywhere on the plane after boarding, two checked bags, a carry-on bag, and all the onboard amenities.
Southwest has open seating so any open seat is available for passengers.
Alaska does allow free seat selection for economy but charges extra for seats close to the front and exit row seats.
Alaska, like many full-service carriers, has also embraced restrictive basic economy fares that replaced its cheapest fares. The product is generous with and limited advanced seat assignments and a free carry-on bag but flyers will have to pay more for better seats and checked bags.
Southwest doesn’t have change or cancel fees for any ticket.
Alaska has eliminated change fees but not for basic economy fares, known as “saver” fares.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. The flexibility and free extras offered by Southwest put it well and above Alaska. It’s worth noting, however, that even Alaska’s basic economy fares are more generous than many of its competitors.
Boarding: Alaska boards its aircraft in groups that are assigned based on seat location and fare class. First class boards first, followed by elite status holders, those sitting in “premium class.” Economy then boards back to front, for the most part, and basic economy flyers board dead last.
On Southwest, however, passengers are given a boarding number and group that’s determined by how early they check-in for the flight. Once on the plane, they can select any open seat.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. Alaska’s boarding process relegates basic economy passengers to the very last section while even the passenger with the cheapest ticket on Southwest has the opportunity to board earlier if they check-in at exactly 24 hours prior to departure.
Onboard amenities: Both airlines are in the process of modernizing their fleets but older aircraft remain. On Southwest, for example, I flew on the 737-700 fleet on my most recent trip and it was the furthest from modern.
But its updated aircraft have a great, modern look, as I found on flights from New York to Orlando in 2020.
Alaska has the same issue. Its newer Max aircraft is a show-stopper but older aircraft seem tired.
Both airlines also offer paid in-flight WiFi and streaming content.
Alaska does surpass Southwest, however, by offering in-seat power to keep devices charged.
Winner: Alaska Airlines. Both airlines offer similar products but Alaska just eeks ahead with in-seat power.
In-flight service: Both airlines have restored portions of their in-flight service since the pandemic began. Alaska, for example, serves soft drinks and snacks.
Southwest just brought back Coke, Diet Coke, and 7UP, as well as more snacks.
Before the pandemic, however, Alaska sold meals and snack boxes while Southwest just stuck to drinks and small snacks.
Winner: Alaska Airlines.
West Coast feel: Alaska has its roots in the West Coast and that shows in its branding. The colors are vibrant, there is a focus on West Coast brands in the in-flight service, and the airline is based in Seattle.
Southwest has a generic appeal as it connects the US through bases across the country with no specific ties to the West Coast. There’s no West Coast feel.
Winner: Alaska Airlines: There’s an undeniable feeling when flying on Alaska that it’s more in tune with the West Coast vibe than Southwest.
National connectivity: Alaska is highly concentrated on the West Coast while Southwest has bases across the US.
Southwest doesn’t have the sprawling West Coast network that Alaska does but it does offer connections between most of the region’s major cities and connections to the rest of the country through its mid-continent bases in places like Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, and Dallas.
Alaska only has hubs in the West Coast cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, requiring a stop in one of those cities before heading east. The airline does partner with airlines like American to offer mixed-airline itineraries but that could be difficult if the airlines are in two different terminals.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. Having more mid-continent bases allows for more convenient journeys with lower travel times for customers.
Business traveler amenities: Corporate travelers have different priorities than most leisure travelers and will often spend more for seats in premium cabins and access lounges.
Alaska has premium lounges in six airports, and partners with American and Qantas on lounge access for members. Southwest does not have any lounges.
Alaska’s jet aircraft also have first class cabins, the domain of the business traveling road warrior, while Southwest does not.
A special section of economy is also available on Alaska. Called “premium class,” seats in the section offer additional legroom and come with complimentary alcoholic beverages.
Alaska is also a member of the Oneworld airline alliance and Alaska’s elite status holders can use their benefits on other airlines like American and British Airways, and vice versa. Southwest is not a part of any airline alliance.
Southwest does have a special fare for business travelers, called “Business Select,” that includes extras like priority boarding and free alcoholic drinks (suspended during the pandemic).
And Southwest does have better connectivity outside of the West Coast. A business traveler in St. Louis looking to fly to New York couldn’t even choose Alaska if they wanted to.
Winner: Alaska Airlines. Business travelers have more premium amenities at their disposal on Alaska, if the choice is between Alaska and Southwest.
Airline of the West Coast: Alaska Airlines. Both airlines are incredibly similar but Alaska has more West Coast-oriented amenities to help it pull ahead of Southwest.