The Road? Still Stinks.
Alaska Airlines? Still Okay.
THURSDAY, JUNE 24, 2021 -- Don't believe everything you read and hear about air fares rocketing toward the heavens during the post-pandemic "recovery." I landed a $307 roundtrip a few weeks ago for a San Francisco-Chicago/O'Hare-Madison, Wisconsin, run and didn't even have to shop it.

It was a route flown by Virgin America during its all-too-short-time on earth before the 2016 Alaska Airlines buyout. Prior to the acquisition, Alaska Air overflew Chicago, apparently because it did not want to square off against United or American airlines, which dominate O'Hare, or take on Southwest, which operates from Chicago/Midway. And since United, which flies SFO-Madison nonstop on a seasonal basis, and Delta Air Lines, which offers connections via its hubs, usually charge about $800 roundtrip, I was thrilled with my $307 score.

Even though Alaska Air isn't a household name in the Windy City, the 7am midweek flight on a Boeing 737-900 was packed. A total sellout. But since Alaska Air has taken over SFO's spacious Terminal Two--previously shared with American--the airport experience is comfortable and not crowded even during prime time.

What's more, Alaska Air, known for its responsive customer service, did not disappoint. Staffers were proactively helping passengers tag their bags and check in even while we were waiting in line. "Let's keep it moving, keep it moving," said Barbara, a helpful, former Virgin America employee told us. "Here, follow me and let me help you," she added. Music to my ears at 5:30am.

The TSA crew on duty at Terminal Two during that hour was just as efficient in a sort of glad-to-see-you-back sort of way. Loading the 178-seat plane went smoothly and our take-off time was right on schedule. No delays, no excuses.

I couldn't upgrade to first class or Alaska Air's version of premium economy because of the sellout. But unlike the Big Three, Alaska Air is less miserly with legroom in its coach cabins. I had plenty of stretch-out space and my drop-down table could drop down so I could use a laptop computer comfortably. I was pleasantly surprised.

However, I wasn't surprised when the flight attendants announced that passengers must keep their masks on at all times except when eating and drinking. No exceptions. Still, five hours is a long time to wear a mask and a couple times I lowered it below my nose. True to their word, the hawkeyed flight attendants walked up and reminded me pleasantly--but firmly--that face masks must cover everything but the eyes. Bottom line? Just deal with it.

Another tip for lengthy flights these days: Bring your own food. In coach, we got packaged trail mix or cookies and could buy alcoholic drinks, but no sandwiches, breakfast items or other foods were offered for sale.

Alaska Air Flight 1208 arrived at O'Hare a few minutes ahead of schedule at 1:20pm Central time. My Madison connection on American Eagle, Alaska Air's new codeshare partner, was 22 minutes in the air and, again, every seat was filled on the ERJ-145 regional jet. It seems like I spent more time waiting for luggage than flying.

I decided to extend my trip an extra four days and immediately thought: This is when Alaska Air will extract more than a pound of financial flesh to get even for its super-low $307 roundtrip fare. But yet another surprise: I reached a customer service agent with a delightful, helpful personality and a soothing voice that reminded me of the whiskey-toned Julie London. She switched my flights, found me an aisle seat and a perfect landing time for $250. I counted my blessings and counted myself lucky.

The return trip was almost as smooth as the inbound except for the six-hour layover at O'Hare. (And, of course, American's nearest Admirals Club was shuttered.) Nothing eventful on the 28-minute Madison-to-Chicago trip except that I was once again reminded just how cramped American's ERJ-145s really are. I was wedged--and I mean tightly wedged--into the window seat.

The Alaska Airlines 737-900 between ORD and SFO was again a sellout. It was also the same cabin crew from the inbound Alaska flight--polite and responsive--so I had a nice sense of deja vu. Also, again, there was no way to upgrade for more space, but the main cabin coach seat was still roomy enough. Or maybe it was just the sense of relief you feel when you're not wedged into an RJ.

This time, unfortunately, the departure was an hour late. Turns out the one overhead bin would not close and a mechanic couldn't be located to fix it. Finally, a gentleman came down the aisle with the ultimate low-tech solution: duct tape and a pair of scissors.

Snip, snip, snip and we were off ...