I’m well aware that it’s been about three weeks since Alaska announced its plans for serving Dallas/Love Field, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then. Why do I care? Well, I don’t see a world where Dallas is all that important for Alaska, so I’m trying to find a good reason why the airline is bothering at all. I’m coming up short. It seems like Alaska is trying to solve several problems and in the end, it’s just creating an operational headache.
This issue goes back to Virgin America’s decision a few years ago to try to expand outside of its LA and San Francisco bases. It had covered the big destinations from those cities, but it had more airplanes on order. So it desperately looked for a place to, ahem, spread its wings. When American and US Airways merged, the feds forced them to give up their 2 gates at highly-constrained Dallas/Love Field as well as slots at both Washington/National and New York/LaGuardia. Virgin America started formulating a plan.
The idea was to snag those 2 gates at Love along with slots at National and LaGuardia. Due to perimeter rules at both those airports restricting the distance airlines can fly, Virgin America couldn’t use the slots to fly to its hubs in LA or San Francisco. Instead, the airline would build a mini-hub at Love Field. It would use those two gates to fly east to DC and New York as well as west to its bases in LA and San Francisco. It would fill in the rest of its Love gate capacity by flying a few flights to Austin. Those were never meant to be more than placeholders. Eventually those Austin flights were so miserable that they disappeared and Virgin America started a Vegas flight. This allowed Virgin America to put airplanes somewhere, but with no growth prospects and little relevance to the rest of the system, it was still a puzzling move.
When Alaska acquired Virgin America, the intent of the merger was clear from the outset. Alaska wanted to replicate its success in the Pacific Northwest down in California. It had already started to build up medium-size airports like San Jose and San Diego. But with the addition of Virgin America’s portfolio at LAX and San Francisco, it could now begin to serve the needs of Californians in a much more comprehensive way. Whether that strategy pays off remains to be seen, but it’s at least very clear. How Dallas fits into the mix, however, is not.
Alaska indicated it would keep its gates at Love Field after the merger, so then the question became… how would the airline decide to utilize them? There were several competing needs.
- Act as a new destination from Pacific Northwest markets complementing the service to Dallas/Ft Worth that already exists.
- Act as a way to maintain service from LA and San Francisco to the Dallas area since it had no DFW service from there.
- Act as a way to grow connectivity from smaller California cities into the Dallas area.
- Act as a way to continue to maintain those slots at National and LaGuardia since Alaska couldn’t use them to serve any of its west coast markets due to the perimeter rule.
- Act as a way to piss off Southwest since it desperately wants those gates.
So what did Alaska decide to do? ALL OF IT.
- Alaska will fly twice daily from Seattle and once daily from Portland. One of the Seattle flights will be on a Virgin America A320 while the other flights will be on Embraer 175s.
- Alaska will keep three daily flights to Dallas from both Los Angeles and San Francisco. These will be operated by Virgin America Airbuses.
- San Jose and San Diego will each get one daily flight to Dallas on Embraer 175 aircraft.
- LaGuardia will keep 4 daily flights while National will retain its 3 daily flights.
- I’m sure Southwest is pissed.
For you math whizzes out there, you can see this adds up to 18 daily flights, or 9 on each gate. I’ve played with the schedules and can’t quite figure out how all of this positioning is going to work, but it does appear there will be 5 aircraft that spend the night in Dallas with a lot of towing required to get airplanes on and off the gate. Virgin America struggled to run a good operation with such tight constraints in Dallas, and I expect Alaska will have trouble as well.
Sure, 11 of the 18 flights are on 76-seat Embraers, so they should be able to get quicker turns. But you still need everything to go right. And considering perennially-delayed San Francisco and New York/LaGuardia count for 40 percent of the operation, it’s going to be a complete mess. To go back to the five points I made earlier one more time…
- Alaska already has up to 4 daily big jets from Seattle and 2 daily flights from Portland to Dallas/Ft Worth. That benefits from the connectivity at codeshare-partner American’s hub. Love might add a little utility for some people, but it hardly seems worthwhile to run the split operation there.
- LA and San Francisco would likely benefit more from flights to DFW than these Love options, because they could connect further into the American network. Since these airlines are no longer allowed to codeshare on hub to hub flying, Alaska now has no way to get people in LA and San Francisco to American’s DFW hub.
- San Diego already has 3 daily nonstops to Dallas on Southwest while San Jose has 1, so it’s not like Alaska has a service advantage. I’d think these cities would also benefit more from DFW service for the same reasons as mentioned above.
- LaGuardia and National provide no benefit to the network. Sure, Alaska can squat on those slots, but will it ever be able to use them to get to the West Coast? It’s unclear. How long do you keep losing money (I assume) before you decide it’s not worth it?
- Ok, so pissing off Southwest has to be fun.
In the end, I just don’t see enough strategic value to bother with the operational hassle, no matter how much fun it is to be able to prevent Southwest from growing at its home airport. I know the Alaska team is smart, so I’m just trying to find the angle that made sense to them. Three weeks after the announcement, I’m still searching.