I flew on Southwest and Alaska, the two airlines competing to be the best of the West Coast and the winner is abundantly clear

·9 min read
Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider
  • 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.

Related: How Delta's cleaning crew is sanitizing planes

The West Coast of the US stretches more than 1,000 miles with no shortage of major cities from San Diego to Seattle.

newport beach
Beach Media/Shutterstock

All the major US airlines serve this important region of the country but two are battling for dominance, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Catharine Pierce and Markus Mainka/Shutterstock.com

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.

alaska airlines
Philip Pilosian/ Shutterstock

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.

Southwest Airlines
Chris Parypa Photography/shutterstock

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.

Golden Gate Bridge
Matthew Baker/Getty Images

I flew on both airlines this year to see which one was truly the airline of the West Coast. Here's what I found.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

West Coast connectivity: Alaska serves 29 cities up and down the coast, including smaller cities like Everett, Washington; Santa Rosa, California; and Medford, Oregon.

Paine Field in Everett, Washington
Paine Field in Everett, Washington. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Read More: I flew on Alaska for the first time since it stopped blocking middle seats and it was the closest to normal I've seen during the pandemic

Southwest serves 15 West Coast cities and plans to serve two more this summer. Bellingham, Washington flights will also open sometime this year.

Southwest Airlines
A Southwest Airlines aircraft departing from Los Angeles. Light Orancio/Shutterstock.com

Winner: Alaska Airlines. The airline's connectivity between West Coast cities large and small cannot be beaten by Southwest's existing network.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Markus Mainka and Catharine Pierce/Shutterstock.com

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.

Flying Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Southwest has open seating so any open seat is available for passengers.

Flying on Southwest Airlines COVID-19
Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Alaska does allow free seat selection for economy but charges extra for seats close to the front and exit row seats.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic Thomas Pallini/Insider

Southwest doesn't have change or cancel fees for any ticket.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Alaska has eliminated change fees but not for basic economy fares, known as "saver" fares.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Markus Mainka/Shutterstock.com

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.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Markus Mainka/Shutterstock.com

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.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

But its updated aircraft have a great, modern look, as I found on flights from New York to Orlando in 2020.

Flying on Southwest Airlines COVID-19
Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Read More: I flew on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic and came away impressed by how well the largest low-cost US airline handled social distancing

Alaska has the same issue. Its newer Max aircraft is a show-stopper but older aircraft seem tired.

Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max Flight
Flying on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Both airlines also offer paid in-flight WiFi and streaming content.

LAX Day Trip Alaska Airlines
Water onboard an Alaska Airlines flight from New York to Los Angeles. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Alaska does surpass Southwest, however, by offering in-seat power to keep devices charged.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Winner: Alaska Airlines. Both airlines offer similar products but Alaska just eeks ahead with in-seat power.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Catharine Pierce/Shutterstock.com

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.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic Thomas Pallini/Insider

Southwest just brought back Coke, Diet Coke, and 7UP, as well as more snacks.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Read More: Southwest is reverting to its normal boarding policy and bringing back fan-favorite in-flight amenities

Before the pandemic, however, Alaska sold meals and snack boxes while Southwest just stuck to drinks and small snacks.

LAX Day Trip Alaska Airlines
The contents of one of Alaska Airlines' picnic packs. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Winner: Alaska Airlines.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Catharine Pierce/Shutterstock.com

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.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Catharine Pierce/Shutterstock.com

National connectivity: Alaska is highly concentrated on the West Coast while Southwest has bases across the US.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Southwest Airlines aircraft at Denver International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

LAX Day Trip Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Winner: Southwest Airlines. Having more mid-continent bases allows for more convenient journeys with lower travel times for customers.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Markus Mainka/Shutterstock.com

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.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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 Lounge Seattle
The Alaska Lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Alaska's jet aircraft also have first class cabins, the domain of the business traveling road warrior, while Southwest does not.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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.

american airlines
REUTERS/Mike Blake

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).

Flying on Southwest Airlines COVID-19
Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

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.

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic
Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic from Miami International Airport. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Winner: Alaska Airlines. Business travelers have more premium amenities at their disposal on Alaska, if the choice is between Alaska and Southwest.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Catharine Pierce/Shutterstock.com

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.

Southwest Airlines vs Alaska Airlines.
Comparing Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Catharine Pierce/Shutterstock.com

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