We’ve seen so much about the fight between the big US and the big Middle East carriers that it’s easy to forget that not every US carrier is behind this effort. There are some US-based airlines that love Middle East airlines and for good reason. Alaska gave a startling statistic in its most recent earnings call showing how some airlines can benefit from the tremendous traffic these Middle East airlines bring into the US.
Alaska isn’t alone. A new group, US Airlines for Open Skies, has recently ramped up efforts. (If you can’t keep all these silly names straight, you’re not alone.) This group doesn’t think the Middle East airlines need to be kept at bay at all.
Who’s in this group? We have FedEx, Atlas Air, Hawaiian, and JetBlue so far. The cargo carrier stance is obvious. FedEx in particular relies on open skies in the Middle East for a hub operation. It doesn’t want to see that jeopardized by some passenger-carrier spat. For the passenger carriers, it’s a different issue. JetBlue and Hawaiian don’t have designs on serving the Middle East, but they do want to serve the passengers who are traveling there. Let me explain.
Big airlines have no problem creating feed for themselves through their own networks and through their close alliance partners. But for airlines like Hawaiian and JetBlue, there is a big reliance on a variety of other airlines to provide feed to help fill those airplanes. Alaska, though not part of this group (yet), is in the same boat.
Based in Seattle, Alaska doesn’t have an intercontinental network to compete with Delta and its newly-born hub. Instead, Alaska partners with a variety of airlines, some direct competitors with each other, to generate feed and mileage-earning opportunities. These kinds of partnerships are great for Alaska because they enable the airline, via partners, to get its loyal customers where they need to go. At the same time, the partner airlines love it because it gives them access to the Pacific Northwest and beyond in a way they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Emirates is one of those partners and for good reason. Emirates launched a nonstop flight between Dubai and Seattle back in 2012. At the time, it seemed crazy. There couldn’t be much demand to fly between Seattle and Dubai, could there? Maybe not, but there was more demand between Seattle and India, as well as other places beyond Dubai. Emirates could serve that traffic without the help of anyone else, but it still seemed pretty light.
Emirates launched this route with a 777-300ER that holds 304 people in coach and another 50 in the premium cabins. Even with traffic going beyond Dubai, Emirates knew that it couldn’t fill that airplane, so it looked to potential partners.
Before the first flight even landed in Seattle, Emirates and Alaska had announced a frequent flier and interline agreement. Alaska and Emirates loyalists could earn and burn miles on the other airline. More importantly, this created seamless connections where Emirates could issue tickets including Alaska flights, and bags could be checked straight through. (The same is true for the reverse.)
Keep in mind, this isn’t a codeshare. But if someone in say, Anchorage or Walla Walla, needs to go to Dubai or beyond, he could find a connection on Alaska and Emirates that would price on a through fare and make for an easy travel experience.
I always wondered just how successful this partnership was since it didn’t involve a codeshare, but now we know. In its second quarter earnings call, Alaska said that it had been putting 200 people EACH DAY on to Emirates.
I asked Alaska for clarification and found out that this is a systemwide number, but I was told that 95 percent of that traffic flows over Seattle. (There’s probably a little over LA and maybe even less over San Francisco.) This is also each direction, so it’s probably about 95 people per day each way going between Alaska and Emirates in Seattle. That is a huge number. Just think about that. Emirates ran a load factor of just north of 80 percent on this route in 2014. That means that about a third of the seats filled on each Emirates flight from Seattle were filled with people who were also flying Alaska on their journey. That’s a quarter of all seats on the airplane, including the empty ones. (Update: Between launch and last summer, I’m told the first flight was operated during some seasons by a smaller 777-200LR, so that would mean Alaska likely filled an even higher percentage of seats.)
Notice that I said Alaska HAD been putting 200 people on to Emirates. That was before Emirates started its second daily flight on a 777-200LR with another 50 premium cabin seats and 216 coach seats. Now, Alaska is putting 275 people per day on Emirates. Its biggest day ever? One day there were 410 passengers transferred between the two.
You can see how powerful a partnership like this can be. It’s no surprise that smaller US airlines love the Middle East carriers, and really any airline that can help generate more traffic across the network.
[Original airport photo via Shutterstock]