Sculpted ceiling, sloping bins and window recesses add to a feel of spaciousness

For 17 years, I have qualified to be a sardine.

That is to say that — since some time in 1996 —  I have so often tightly packed my 6’4″ self into winged metal containers filled with people that I have qualified for MVP Gold status on Alaska Airlines every year. “Sardine” is one of the many terms of endearment those of us who are not George Clooney use to describe, on group hug sites like FlyerTalk, what we have to go through to reach very frequent flier status.

Which is why, when someone from Alaska Airlines called and said, “Do you want to spend your Friday flying from Paine Field in Everett to Seattle Tacoma International Airport,” I jumped at it. Because I am an obsessive sardine.

The occasion? Alaska taking delivery of its very first 737-800 with Boeing’s cutting-edge Sky Interior.

Now before you yawn, let me say that even if you’re not a very frequent flier, this is damned exciting. Because it literally changes your perspective on the real estate airline travelers call home for anywhere from two to six hours at a time.

Alaska will use a pinkish LED for night departures

The Sky Interior was originally developed for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner (I recall seeing a mock up, years ago, at a Boeing “showroom” in Tukwila). It proved so intriguing to airlines that Boeing adapted it for new 737 orders. Since October 2010, more than 200 “Next Generation” 737s have been delivered with the interior, including to Continental (now merged with United) and American (now merged with U.S. Bankruptcy Court).

The most obvious improvement? The passenger cabin simply appears larger, with more headroom.

Alaska will use dark blue LEDs for taxi, takeoff and landing, instead of turning out all cabin lights

The visual tricks Boeing has used include sloping the overhead bins so they follow the curve of sculpted cabin walls and pivot down to open (holding more luggage, too), and shaping the window recesses so they draw your eyes to the outside. Even buttons for reading lights have been re-designed to make it easier to not annoy flight attendants by accidentally hitting the call button.

And there are wonderfully geeky details. Large, recessed oval ceiling panels lit with color LEDs ( light emitting diodes) and color LED sidewall lighting give off a futuristic glow reminiscent of science-fiction movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Alaska will use the standard sky blue for daytime flights, but switch to a pinkish “sunrise/sunset” palette for night departures, and a very dark blue scheme for taxi, takeoff and landing instead of turning all the cabin lights off. Flight attendants can control the nine standard and four Alaska-custom light settings from a touchscreen panel.

One of the less obvious techie improvements, notes Alaska’s Manager of Product Development Chase Craig, is a type of “flight attendant assist” on the luggage bins. If there’s more than 80 pounds of luggage in a bin, an attendant can simply flip a lever on the side, pull down on the bin instead of pushing up, and the bin will spring closed. It’s essentially a reverse-hydraulic assist.

And those announcements on overhead speakers that are generally less understandable than a fast-food attendant’s request? The Sky Interior replaces them with better speakers in every passenger row.

In order to get the full effect, we boarded our Alaska 737-800 (tail number N536AS for aviation geeks) at Paine Field for the short delivery flight to the jet’s new home at Alaska’s SeaTac hanger.

Light and call buttons have been redesigned to make it easier to not accidentally press the wrong button

One of the first things I noticed when taking my window seat is that I could easily see the ceiling in the aisle at my row – a sight normally obscured by luggage bins in the older 737 interiors. The ceiling coves, LED illumination and sloping bins and sculpted walls did provide an unexpected feeling of dimensionality, as if the cabin had more space to explore than it really did.

It’s not like Alaska is a newbie to tech innovation. Though slightly late to the Sky party, Alaska has a long history of doing geeky stuff. The first to sell tickets on the web. The first with web check-in. Among the first to have check-in kiosks and possibly first with last-minute web specials (famously called by former marketing veep Steve Jarvis the airline’s “brown bananas”). And the first to have a portable digital video player onboard, the DigEPlayer.

Alaska plans to take delivery of five more 737s with the Sky interior between now and the end of the year, for a total of three 737-800s and three 737-900ERs. No word on what flights the first Sky is likely to fly, but odds are it will be where a passenger would expect to see a 737-800 – on a transcontinental or Hawaii route.

I have not yet dared to ask how many frequent flier miles I earned.

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  • Guest

    Congratulations to Alaska Airlines and Boeing for making the plane interiors look bigger. Meanwhile, Virgin America’s Airbuses actually are roomier, and have had the colored LED lights for years.

    • FrankCatalano

      I think the major difference is that I am constantly expecting a disco ball to descend from the ceiling on Virgin America.

    • Guest

      Thank you for missing the point. Airbus is not a local company; they don’t even have a headquarters in the United States. Virgin America has exactly two destinations from Sea-Tac.

      In conclusion, I’d prefer that this comment be deleted. The last thing GeekWire needs is some sarcastic mock-Pollyanna congratulating everybody for dubious achievements.

      • Daveon

        And yet, regardless of the destinations it has to be said that Virgin has a superior “product” and I say this as an Alaska MVP…

        • FrankCatalano

          Destination is a big deal, though. I’ve flown Virgin America and unless one only flies between Seattle and San Francisco or Los Angeles, there are no other non-stop options from SEA. The AS 737 with BSI will be on many, many more routes as they roll out.

    • Eric Montz

      Many airlines have LED lights and more than Airbus…the Boeing 777-300ER has had it for years as well, most notably with V Australia. Not to mention the 787 has had it since early 2000’s, just hasn’t been flown til now. 

      Virgin just has too small of a route map to satisfy everyone’s travel needs, and without codeshares, they are useless to a lot of people. I think their route map and fleet would fit nicely with JetBlue’s. Hell, it’d fit nicely with Alaska’s, but fleetwise, no. Not sure if the west coast can support Southwest, Alaska, and Virgin (and to an extent, JetBlue) all flying up and down the coast with the legacies as well. Somebody is going to be squeezed out and my first guess would be Virgin as they have already struggled on the more competitive routes in California as their model of pulling down fares doesn’t work as well on short haul flying where Southwest is too powerful and already has the pricing power in their California markets.

  • Daveon

    Hmmm… Not sure a for rent “digiplayer” is a net plus over a real inflight entertainment system…

    • FrankCatalano

      Depends on what you’re looking for. When digEplayer was introduced years ago, it was a cutting edge device. The current version is no longer unique due to what passengers bring on board with them and the proliferation of seat-back systems. But it does have about 75 movies now – a recent increase – and Alaska has restored the multiple music channels it had removed at the launch of the new model. I find web browsing wonky on it, however (though it does work). 

  • Pete Emmert

    My only trouble with Boeing 7373’s is that the windows are way to low and I wind up with a kink in my neck from looking out.

  • Delta 757 Man

    i am going from SFO-OGG and everse route on an alaska 737-800. do you think it will have this cabin, or the older one?

    • FrankCatalano

      As I recall, Alaska Airlines has only taken delivery of two BSI -800s to date. So the odds are pretty slim. In the five months since I wrote this column and many flights on Alaska Airlines since, I’ve only been on a Boeing Sky Interior jet once — and that was this inaugural flight.

      • Delta 757 Man

        thank you. where do the sky 737-800s go right now?

        • FrankCatalano

          From what I know, they are in regular fleet rotation. So unless one knows how to track tail numbers (which, I’m afraid, I don’t), there’s no way of knowing.

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