What the Heck is Delta Doing in Seattle?

It started out innocently enough. Delta chose a couple routes where it wanted to add capacity to Seattle, its newest international gateway. Then it added more, and more, and more. Now it’s hard to think of this onslaught as anything but an invasion on the city that its partner (?) Alaska Airlines calls home. I’m really struggling to understand the plan here, but there has to be one.

Delta Alaska War

In the beginning, the moves made sense. Delta, looking to find itself a west coast gateway to Asia, took the only one really available, Seattle. Turns out, that’s not a bad gateway at all. Delta added international flights and relied on Alaska to feed them. The plan seemed to work as the airline continued to add more and more, all while pulling down its Narita hub.

Since then, however, the strategy has become more and more bizarre. Instead of announcing a game plan, the airline has opted to trickle out a route here and a route there. To the best of my knowledge, here’s how it has unfolded.

  • Oct 9, 2012 – Delta upgrades Seattle-JFK flights to intl service beginning June 1, 2013.
  • Oct 22, 2012 – Delta announces Seattle-Shanghai beginning June 16, 2013.
  • Dec 24, 2012 – Delta announces 3 daily Seattle-LA flights beginning April 8, 2013
  • Feb 6, 2013 – Delta announces Seattle-Tokyo/Haneda flight beginning June 1, 2013.
  • Feb 25, 2013 – Delta announces daily Seattle-Anchorage/Vegas beginning June 10, 2013.
  • May 13, 2013 – Delta increases Seattle-LA to 5 daily.
  • Jul 29, 2013 – Delta announces Seattle-London/Heathrow beginning March 29, 2014.
  • Aug 20, 2013 – Delta cancels Seattle-Osaka service beginning November 4, 2013.
  • Aug 24, 2013 – Delta announces daily Seattle-Seoul/Incheon beginning June 2, 2014
  • Aug 24, 2013 – Delta announces daily Seattle-Hong Kong beginning June 16, 2014.
  • Sep 26, 2013 – Delta increases Seattle-Las Vegas to 3 daily.
  • Oct 1, 2013 – Delta announces 6 daily Seattle-San Francisco beginning March 28, 2014.
  • Nov 4, 2013 – Delta announces 4 daily Seattle-San Diego beginning June 2, 2014.
  • Nov 4, 2013 – Delta announces 4 daily Seattle-Portland beginning September 2, 2014.
  • Dec 2, 2013 – Delta announces 5 daily Seattle-Vancouver beginning June 5, 2014.
  • Dec 5, 2013 – Delta announces daily Seattle-Fairbanks beginning May 29, 2014.
  • Dec 5, 2013 – Delta unveils “Spirit of Seattle” aircraft.
  • Dec 16, 2013 – Delta announces daily Seattle-Juneau beginning June 1, 2014.
  • Dec 17, 2013 – Delta announces 4 daily Seattle-San Jose beginning September 2, 2014.

Does this look like a descent into madness to anyone else?

The first twinge of weirdness came with those Anchorage and Vegas flights. But I looked at those and I thought it was just utilization flying. After all, both flights were in the evening and seemed like airplanes that were just sitting on the ground anyway. So, a little strange but not a bad idea.

It was the end of September when Delta decided that Vegas would ramp up to 3 daily that I started wondering what was going on. All of a sudden, you had flights that didn’t seem timed for international connections. The addition of San Francisco seemed stranger with much heavier frequency. And then it was off to the races.

The idea that flights were being added to support the international operation is now a joke. Many of these flights are clearly being scheduled in these markets for local Seattle travelers. In some of these markets, there are so few international travelers anyway that it doesn’t make a difference if there was a connection or not. And naming an airplane the “Spirit of Seattle” is just like a dagger. Delta has decided to go scorched earth with one of its previously-dearest partners, Alaska.

If I’m Alaska, I’m somewhat shell-shocked here. I’m not sure why Delta is doing this, but I have three guesses. Maybe you have a better theory.

  1. Alaska can’t provide enough feed to Delta. Delta needs more seats and if Alaska won’t provide them, Delta will.
  2. Alaska won’t provide feed at a low enough rate so Delta is going to fly its own airplanes. That would be closely tied with #1 since if Alaska flights weren’t full, they’d be much more willing to negotiate a lower rate to fill those seats.
  3. Delta wants to try to weaken Alaska enough that it depresses the stock price, making it a cheaper takeover target. Alaska is a well-run airline that wants to stay independent, but numbers are numbers. If Delta can make the numbers work, then it might try to make a move.

In each of these scenarios, Delta is putting pressure on Alaska to get what it wants. Clearly Delta doesn’t think that Alaska can do any harm in response, but Alaska is incredibly strong in Seattle. It’s hugely profitable and so it would take a lot to really bring Alaska down. Delta may also be underestimating Alaska’s willingness to kill the partnership.

There’s no doubt that both sides benefit from their agreement, but if Delta keeps adding, Alaska is effectively helping Delta grow by offering reciprocal frequent flier benefits. The more Delta grows, the more I’d think about walking away if I were Alaska. That would hurt Delta in Seattle significantly. It would hurt more if this fight pushed Alaska further into the arms of American. Then again, if it resulted in Delta buying Alaska, then none of this would apply.

For Alaska’s part so far, it’s responding with a few flights into Salt Lake City and a strengthened frequent flier partnership with its other international partners (all now provide elite qualifying miles). I’m not sure any of this will have an impact on Delta, but it does send the message that Alaska won’t just back down. There could be further consequences.

This will continue to be very interesting for the next year or so. I’m really curious to see how far Delta will take this before reversing course. Maybe if Alaska gives Delta what it wants (your guess as to what that is is as good as mine), then this will stop. But if the assault continues, this partnership could start to deteriorate faster.

[Original image of woman puppeteer via Shutterstock]

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58 Comments on "What the Heck is Delta Doing in Seattle?"

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BOS Flyer
Guest

I’d say DL is bullying AS into giving them something that AS is not willing to do (cheaper feed). Maybe AS should look towards AA (or maybe even UA) to partner with.

Brian
Guest

They are already partnered with AA.

A partnership with UA is not going to happen. It doesn’t make sense for them to work with UA at all.

ChuckMO
Guest
At first it seemed that DL was adding feed to it’s SEA gateway so as to get better control over connecting traffic flows. I would compare SEA to JFK in that at most DL would need a couple of flights per day in most major markets to help feed the gateway. Now, given the frequency that DL is adding to places like LAX, SFO, SAN, YVR, PDX and LAS, coupled with increased Alaska flying to ANC, FAI and JNU it’s much more than feeding the international flights. I’m as perplexed as you are Brett in what exactly DL is trying… Read more »
David
Guest

Let us suppose that Alaska decides its lost faith with Delta and wants to end the partnership. At what point in time will the merged American be ready to devote considerable amounts of time to significant integration with Alaska or even consider sponsoring Alaska into oneworld ? My guess is Xmas 2014 at the earliest, but more likely July 2015, but interested to hear what others have to say

ChuckMO
Guest

AA/AS codeshares and FF benefits are in place already. It wouldn’t take much effort on either side to tighten up the relationship.

David SF eastbay
Member
Kind of passed over the ‘Alaska adds a few flights to SLC’ to quickly since it’s more then a few and flights are to various other cities and not just SEA/PDX strongholds. Good point on trying to devalue AS for a possible take over. But any airline starting a international gateway is going to need it’s own aircraft to feed it or at least it’s own commuter carrier to do so. DL can’t get say Skywest to move in and become another Horizon, so it’s using what DL/DLC it can into the bigger business centers of the west to feed… Read more »
John
Guest

Where does adding a seasonal JNU-SEA flight fit into international feed? Cranky seems to be on track given the sheer number of flights being added.

haolenate
Guest
I think that was purely a move to pull down Alaska’s profitability. AS charges significantly more on the SEA/JNU sector than SEA/LAS, for example. Jan 7th – one way – taken from Alaskaair.com SEA-Juneau: Lowest – $283.50 one way; highest $516.40 SEA -Vegas: Lowest – $88.90 one way, highest $374.90 We pay dearly to have Alaska here – granted SeAk ops are a bit more expensive as Alaska has done a lot in terms of operational performance, technology enhancements, etc. Having a city of 35,000 get full size 737s (that are mostly full) versus RJ’s in the Lower 48 means… Read more »
Eric
Guest

Delta’s new Juneau flight is timed well for its departures for Paris, Tokyo (NRT) and Shanghai. I’m not sure what time of day the new Hong Kong flight will leave Seattle. The only international flight the new Juneau doesn’t serve well is the new evening departure for London.

DesertGhost
Guest

There’s at least some speculation about a possible takeover (see the article below). As you point out, Cranky, Delta’s actions in the next year or so should be telling. I wonder if the DOJ would be as willing to allow a Delta / Alaska combination (which would increase industry concentration even further) as easily as it was ultimately willing to settle its US / American lawsuit. There is a point where there really would be too few carriers, and one more merger may be too many in DOJ’s eyes.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-1…s-delta-seen-bidding-real-m-a.html

David
Guest
Would it be in the public interest, for either Alaska (or Hawaii for that matter), where air transport to the other 48 states is particularly important, to be highly dependent on one carrier ? If either AS or HA were to merge with one of the big 3 carriers, there’s a clear possibility that such an eventual end-game would happen. Yes, I know about United having a very high level of control over air transport in some of the tiny islands in Polynesia in the Pacific, but these are very much tiny islands for whom there is unlikely ever to… Read more »
Doug Swalen
Guest
I think you meant Micronesia and not Polynesia. Understandable mistake. UAL doesn’t fly anywhere in Polynesia right now after it pulled out of Fiji last year. Micronesia is essentially United country. The number of flights out of Guam to like seven or eight destinations in Japan would be tough to impact for an invading carrier. UA can get away with Micronesia since it’s essentially flying one plane from Hawaii to Guam with four or five stops and does like once or twice a weeks to Cairns from GUM. Even DL won’t mount a full frontal assault on UAL there. It’s… Read more »
John
Guest
As an Alaskan who books a nearly-annual mileage ticket to Europe with AS miles, I hope the DL redemption options don’t go away. Or they at least keep the KLM/AF redemption option – but wouldn’t that be strange, as the JV would put you on a DL flight half the time anyway. Connecting to Europe through MSP/SEA/SLC is so much nicer than taking multiple hops to get to the East Coast gateways for other airlines. Most Alaskans complain about the premium AS charges to get out of state. But between the Club 49 benefits (free bags mostly), mileage program (companion… Read more »
SEAN
Guest

What the Heck is Delta Doing in Seattle? It looks like they are atempting to establish a focus city – if not a full fledge hub there on Alaska’s turf. Keep in mind that United has a good sized presence in Seattle as well. It’s American/ US Airways that’s weak in the Pacific Northwest, so closer ties to Alaska will definitely aid in those prospects.

David SF eastbay
Member

Interesting how NW was well established in SEA for decades but DL didn’t seem to want to build on that when they took over NW, and now they want to be big in SEA. Took all this time for DL to figure out they need to not rely on just Tokyo as an Asia hub and now have a west coast hub over the pacific to try and keep up with UA.

Scott
Guest

I have a few theories to add to the pile.

1) DL is trying to or has already received corporate travel contracts from Microsoft and others and needs to provide flights on its metal to the places it’s employees frequently travel.

2) DL is trying to get Alaska to stop it’s partnership with American and be exclusive partners. AS said no, so DL is ramping up flights to hurt them.

Nick Barnard
Member

It’d be an interesting marketing ploy subtly to attack AS on their wages given SeaTac Proposition 1 ($15 minimum wage for airport/hospitality workers.) Though they’d have to make sure they weren’t in a glass house first..

haolenate
Guest

the $15 minimum wage is only for NON-union jobs. That’s why many people saw the union-garbage politics all over this. The vote merely does nothing more than push companies to WANT unions which means more unions = more dues payers. The hotels & restaurants are going to suffer the most, err.. consumers USING restaurants & hotels in Seatac.

Jon
Guest

Delta is building their West Coast hub, just like United did with San Francisco. This leaves American without a monopoly on a major West coast city. LA will always be too fragmented. What city does this leave American with for a pacific hub? PHX?
Delta is playing offense now while the other mergers are still getting settled. This is best defense against the bigger UA and AA, once they finally get their respective houses in order.

Alex Hill
Member
Remember that much-hyped Alaska/Delta joint press conference in October 2012 which turned out to be just Delta touting already-announced international service out of Seattle with one new route announcement? Around that time, someone posted on airliners.net saying that DeltaNet (the employee internal service) said that Delta would become Alaska’s exclusive international partner out of Seattle. Now, I wouldn’t put much stuck in an airliners.net rumor, but my wild guess is that this is an insight into what’s going on. Perhaps Delta was putting the screws to Alaska behind the scenes (or thought they had an agreement with Alaska) asking them… Read more »
Gary
Guest

And ANA, and Asiana………..

PF
Guest

Washington state residents seem to have a fierce loyalty to Alaska Airlines – Southwest hasn’t grown much in the 19 years since they got in via Morris Air.

Eric
Guest
Delta may be overplaying their hand in Seattle. I live in Seattle and end up flying Delta several times a year, but I fly Alaska more. Alaska’s service is a lot better and their frequent flyer program is superior for my situation. If the Delta/Alaska arrangement blows up, I’ll fly AA/BA/CX for my needs outside of Alaska’s network. It would take an incredibly cheap ticket for me to choose Delta under those conditions. I don’t belong to SkyMiles and never intend to for the obvious reasons. My business with Delta overwhelmingly depends on the current arrangement with Alaska’s ff program.… Read more »
SAN Greg
Guest

Nice analysis – and interesting points. It’s a power grab move by Delta for sure. I’m tired of so much consolidation and the reduction in choices when I fly. My response is to support and fly Alaska, Virgin America, JetBlue and Sun Country whenever possible. I hope this greedy move by Delta backfires and costs them some big bucks.

jetcitystar10
Member

Also in this battle between the two airlines is the Seattle Football teams.

Delta signed an agreement to be the official airline of the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Sounders FC in September.
http://news.delta.com/index.php?s=43&item=2109

Alaska this month signed starting Seattle Seahawk Quarterback Russell Wilson to be their honorary CFO — ‘chief football officer’.
http://splash.alaskasworld.com/Newsroom/ASNews/ASstories/AS_20131217_072920.asp

Alaska is also the official airline of the Portland Timbers.
http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/timbers-announce-alaska-airlines-as-official-jersey-sponsor-and-airline-of-mls-club-102074908.html

Don’t know if any other sports teams will be drawn into this battle. Time will tell. It is entertaining to watch from the sidelines that’s for sure.

ANCJason
Guest
The CSA of the Salt Lake area is 2.3 million and is growing at relatively high rates – not as much as TX, but the Wasatch Front is definitely growing faster than a lot of other parts of the country. I think that Salt Lake is maturing to the point that it can support a DL hub AND a relatively strong focus operation for another carrier. I think a strong indicator of that is G4’s success both north and south of the core air terminal. WN didn’t make huge inroads into the SLC market but I think that AS has… Read more »
ANCJason
Guest
If I had to guess, I would say that the next AS market out of SLC would be from this list: OAK, RNO, SMF, GEG, or STS. Pretty much anything within two hours flight time of SLC that DL flies mainline without nonstop competition and has no slot restrictions would be a good indicator (STS an exception – it’s a QX market). I don’t think AS has any interest in going east of Salt Lake. OAK and SMF might be viable because they might have the Hawaiian connections; WN gave up RNO so the #’s might be there for a… Read more »
James
Guest

Maybe it has something to do with MQDs and the fact that DL.com won’t show you many Alaskan flights because many of them have an illegal American Eagle leg. If you were a Oregon or Washington-based Medaillon, you now have a significant part of your possibilities cut off.

Doug Swalen
Guest

DL is racking up enemies pretty fast. Gave Korean the middle finger. Now it’s doing it to Alaska.

chitownflyer
Guest

I view DL as trying to make SEA a major international gateway and hub in their network with the addition of the HKG, PVG, and LHR flights. This will make them very competitive with UA & AA.

trackback

[…] Why is Delta adding so many domestic flights in Seattle, home of Alaska Airlines? Brett Snyder — also known as Cranky Flier — writes that he finds the move somewhat surprising. Is it possible that “Delta wants to try to weaken Alaska enough that it depresses the stock price, making it a cheaper takeover target.?” Brett asks the question. […]

Len Assante
Guest

DL wants to buy Alaska. Alaska has a modern, efficient fleet and some choice routes DL does not have access to currently. (LOTS of traffic up and down the coast.) Alaska is in play, Delta wants it.

1js7371
Member

To truly BEAT Alaska, you have to go to (and within) Alaska……..I look for WN to go head-to-head with Alaska on non-stop SoCal to the Northwest, something WN has never done. If Alaska’s blood is in the water, it won’t be just DL feeding.

Scott
Member

“a few flights into Salt Lake City”..

Not quite. Alaska have gone from 2x daily out of SLC to 16x daily next summer.

Fred
Guest

Delta operates 233 flights a day from SLC. And, they haven’t even responded to Alaska’s new flights yet Alaska’s 16x flights will fail miserably.

Sean S.
Guest

The question for Alaska is where do you go from here? There’s really no great move as far as expansion into other markets without facing another airlines with significant resources and loyalty. Unless there is a significant uptick in domestic traffic overall where the pie itself expands, Alaska is mostly stuck attempting to fight from their west-coast hubs unless they decide to go big and start expansion eastward or somehow start intercontinental international service.

kelty
Member

My original hope was for an Alaska & US Airways merger, but that did not happen. But, it would now seem that Alaska should at least code share with AA to expand its reach from Asia to Europe.

David L
Guest
Delta just plunged off of my list of airlines to use. 17 people were bumped today from a flight from Austin, TX to Salt Lake City, UT (26 December). Method used to bump: Select those who purchased tickets earliest; those who paid less than those who purchased tickets later. Worse, Delta eliminated an earlier, regularly scheduled flight due to not enough seats filled, and then moved most of those folks to the schedule they were later bumped from. Now that’s what I call CUSTOMER SERVICE and RELIABILITY!! And consolation for driving to the airport, waiting and hoping for hours, and… Read more »
Carl
Member
DL has also announced SEA-YYC service I think pure and simple, DL has decided to build SEA into a hub for international service, and decided that it needs to control at least the most important domestic feed – so it can control elite member benefits, schedules, and pricing. The thinking must be that NRT is going to decline in importance with the expansion of HND, and that therefore DL needs a strategy beyond NRT as a connecting hub. UA dominates SFO. MSP and SLC don’t have the traffic to support an Asia hub. LAX has too much competition and a… Read more »
Preserve Skymiles
Guest

When did Delta actually announce SEA-YYC service? I have heard rumors that DL will announce the route in early January, but as of yet have not heard anything official. Please provide a link to this if you have it…

In the air
Guest

There are additional details for Mr C Flyer to mull over. Delta has unilaterally canceled all Alaska Airlines ground handling contracts effective March of 2014. Delta has also announced plans to build a 75,000 square foot “Sky Lounge” at Century Link Field.

Eric C
Guest

Brett, I’ve heard this may have a little something to do with Delta’s pilot scope, which really reigned in the amount of seats that domestic code share partners could operate. Any idea if it’s true or not?

trackback

[…] What the Heck is Delta Doing in Seattle? […]

Craig
Guest

Sure seems like they are at war to me. “Spirit of Seattle”! C’mon

http://www.airlinereporter.com/2013/12/delta-unveils-a-special-spirit-of-seattle-livery-alaska-responds/

Neal
Guest

4. – It’s easier and cheaper to organically build your own SEA hub than pay a premium to buy AS outright?

kassaq
Guest
Im from a small village in western Alaska. I was raised in the airline industry in this state. I would like to offer some views of this issue from a life long Alaskan. First, in my opinion, Delta isnt doing anything new. Rather they are returning to Seattle and Alaska. Delta, through its Western and Northwest heritage had a decades long presence serving ANC FAI and JNU. It was only in the early nineties that they scaled back Alaska and Pacific Northwest service. Second, no one on this site seems to realize how utterly unique Alaska Airlines truly is. Fly… Read more »
Brian
Guest
“First, in my opinion, Delta isnt doing anything new. Rather they are returning to Seattle and Alaska. ” But they are, they’re challenging a carrier on their home turf. They may speak of it on quarterly earnings calls as “opportunities” and “Trans-Pac Hub” but this is entirely about beating AS into submission, with the added benefit of creating a geographically convenient hub. “Delta, through its Western and Northwest heritage had a decades long presence serving ANC FAI and JNU” The Alaska routes have little to no meaning. They’re not doing these things for Alaska flying. Alaska is irrelevant, small and… Read more »
Brian
Guest

Forgot one point:

“Delta just doesnt have this and never will. We Alaakans may not always like our “hometown” airline, but we are loyal to them. They know us and our needs and Delta just cant compete with Alaska’s service to/from or within Alaska.”

Delta does not need your business. They’re going to be able to feed their flights with people originating in the lower 48 states. Hundreds of times more populous than Alaska. Why worry about seeling Alaska originating pax? No need. Get them from Florida, Nebraska, California, New York, etc. etc. etc.

Ben H.
Guest

The Delta flight surge in Seattle has begun, but how are things between Widget and Eskimo? On the next episode of ‘As Seattle Turns’…

Vince M
Guest
@Ben H, Yes it seems the surge has begun but Delta is backing off, a bit. I live in San Diego and have enjoyed Alaska’s expansion here. Alaska’s customer service is well above Delta in my opinion. But the significant thing is that I had a flight scheduled from SEA to SAN in early OCT. I just noticed Delta is scaling back their non-stops between SEA and SAN. The daily A320 is replaced with a compass regional jet on the weekends and the total number of nonstop flights is now 4 during the week and three on the weekends (down… Read more »
paul
Guest

Nothing much new here lately, but I can report Delta is still ramming Alaska hard at SEA. Hundreds of flights per day, but still behind Alaska, mostly due to Horizon. The jury is still out on this one!

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