A chat with an Alaska Airlines' executive in charge of MileagePlan

 Alaska Airlines takes its frequent flier program seriously. Photo: Boeing. 

Alaska Airlines takes its frequent flier program seriously. Photo: Boeing. 

Airlines are notoriously tight-lipped about their elite programs, rarely saying how many customers qualify for special frequent flier programs. 

Alaska Airlines is no different. But I recently chatted with Caroline Boren, Alaska's managing director for loyalty marketing and customer care, and asked her if she could provide any context on Alaska's program, which has three tiers - MVP, MVP Gold and MVP 75K. 

"We don't provide exact figures," Boren said. "Roughly all of the elites in our program are less than 5 percent of the overall program."

That's no so bad. If you fly as little as 20,000 miles per year with Alaska, you'll be in a rarified group of travelers - the top 5%.

Boren gave the figures while giving me an overall picture of Alaska's frequent flier program. Alaska has been improving its mileage program even as competitors have been watering down their programs, and that's not by accident. 

"For us it really has been a long-term strategy in terms of how we have managed our frequent flier program," Boren said. "Even though relative to other carriers out there we are smaller, we want to give people a program that punches above our weight class."

As many of you know, one of the best parts about Alaska's program is that you can earn miles on American Airlines and credit them to Alaska. You can also earn some miles on Delta flights, though not as many any more as in the past. (The two carriers, once close partners, have recently become fierce rivals.)

You can reach Alaska's lowest level elite tier by traveling as little as 20,000 miles each year, though all of those miles must be on Alaska. If you include partner miles, you'll need to rack up 25,000 in a year. For that you get two free checked bags on Alaska, as well as priority boarding and access to preferred seats, including ones with extra legroom. You also get perks on American, like a free checked bag, and some perks (though dwindling) on Delta. 

"We are very proud of it," Boren said of the program. "We feel it sets up apart. It reflects the overall brand and product we want to offer."

Boren also said it's important to Alaska that passengers earn airline currency they are actually able to redeem for free flights. "A deliberate part of our strategy is to make it easy for people when they earn those miles for people to use them," she said. 

So where are people going with these miles? I asked Boren where people preferred to go from Los Angeles, and while she did not know at the time, she sent me a follow-up email. (I'm from Los Angeles, which is why I asked.) 

"Seattle is #1 and Portland is #2," she wrote. "Other popular destinations are Anchorage, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Vancouver, BC."

As for long-haul international awards, Boren said travelers tend to like to fly Emirates. I'd venture to say few have redeemed as many first class Emirates awards as Ben Schlappig, the blogger behind OneMileAtATime. Ben has some nice information about how you can redeem Alaska miles for an Emirates first class ticket.