The “proudly all-Boeing” Alaska Airlines is no more. With the Virgin America merger done from a customer perspective, there are both Airbus and Boeing fleets flying under the Alaska brand. For the most part, the Airbuses continue to fly on legacy Virgin America routes while the Boeings stick to legacy Alaska routes, but that’s about to change. I spoke to Alaska’s VP of Capacity Planning, John Kirby, about the airline’s plans for this Fall.
Up until now, the network changes we’ve seen have been primarily route changes. We saw Alaska add a slew of new markets after the merger, and it has been tweaking existing routes since that time. As John explained it, “what was important to Virgin America, what was important to Alaska, the answers to the questions may be different when you combine the two companies.”
Take LA and San Francisco to Cancun, or LA to Orlando, for example. On Cancun, “it’s a nice market to be in, it’s not a money-loser, but it’s not as strong as our Hawaiian franchise. We’d rather fly more Hawai’i, because Cancun isn’t as important to the combined airline.” And Alaska has indeed shifted more capacity into Hawai’i. (That’s also helpful to fend off the upcoming Southwest entry as well as Hawaiian’s new A321neo markets.)
If you fly Alaska, you’ve undoubtedly noticed all these changes coming into the schedule, but now the big changes should be mostly done. Tweaks will continue, but not at the same dizzying rate we’ve seen. Instead, now the focus goes on to getting the right airplane on the right route. With the reservation system (PSS) cutover completed, Alaska now has fewer obstacles to swapping airplanes around. Sure, it still has to prepare airports for the Airbus if they haven’t had them yet by doing things like re-striping the gates, getting the right ramp training, having the right tooling, etc. But that’s not merger-related; that’s just normal things you have to do when introducing a new fleet type to an airport. We’ve seen some fleet swaps already, though primarily in existing Virgin America stations, but you can expect to see bigger moves when the Fall schedule is finalized later this month.
I suppose before we talk about the fleet plans, we have to talk about the fleet itself. Here’s a brief rundown of how things look today.
|Aircraft||Number in Fleet||First Class Seats||Premium/ MCS Seats||Coach Seats||Total Seats|
With this new combined fleet, you really have three categories of airplanes that look fairly similar but could act differently when properly scheduled. In general, as John explained it to me, the idea is to best match airplanes by capacity and range to the markets in the Alaska system.
On the small end, you have the 737-700 and A319. With the retirement of the 737-400s (including the combis), the 737-700 has become the airplane for the state of Alaska. Sure, it dips down into the lower 48 with flights to Seattle and Portland, sometimes going beyond, but this airplane does not have ETOPS and has been centered around operating in Alaska. John did mention that the state of Alaska is performing well, even with the big increase in capacity once the combis went away. He did, however, note that they “may have a little more lift” than they want to have, so there could be tweaks. But he told me that if they were to consider a smaller airplane, like the Embraer 175, it would be years away. “We don’t want to have another misstep like we did with the Q400s.” Alaska is a hard operating environment, so it looks like the 737-700 is going to be there for some time.
The A319 on the other hand, is a pretty small fleet that will be used strategically on routes that need more frequency and less capacity on each flight. The A320 fits into this bucket as well. Sure, it’s similar in size to the 737-800, but the A320 has fewer seats overall (and far fewer premium seats until the reconfigurations begin later) plus it has worse range.
You can already see where these airplanes are being used in some early schedule changes. This summer, for example, about half the flights between LA and Seattle are on an Airbus. LA to San Francisco is almost entirely Airbus as is San Francisco to Seattle. These are markets that require huge frequencies for the business traveler, so having fewer seats on each flight isn’t a problem. And the flights aren’t all that long, so range isn’t an issue.
The bigger 737s will still be used as the workhorses of the fleet. The -800 will continue to do transcons that don’t have enough demand for the larger -900, it will also fly Hawai’i, and it’ll do intra-West Coast flights as always. The -900 will will have similar missions, but it will focus on those places that need more capacity. Think about markets like New York’s JFK or Newark, places that are space-constrained so Alaska needs to put as many seats on each flight as it can.
That leaves the A321neo. There are only four of these in the fleet, but the good range and high capacity make this ideal for Hawai’i and Washington/National flights. That’s where you can expect to see them flying for the foreseeable future.
So what can we expect to see when the Fall schedule is done? You’ll see the fleets moving around much more aggressively. The A319s and A320s will continue to be good “north-south” airplanes, as John called them. But they will also move into more of the mid-continent markets that don’t have as much demand. They may also do some secondary/tertiary transcon markets, but you won’t see them on the longest legs since their range is restricted, especially flying westbound during the winter. I assume the Airbus flight from SF to Raleigh/Durham is a good example of how far they’d want to stretch this fleet. (As an aside, you might be thinking Seattle-Charleston would be a perfect candidate, but I’ll bet money that never happens. You’re going to fly an Airbus between the two Boeing commercial centers? I think not.)
We’ll learn more of the details at the end of this month, but purple mood-lighting may be coming to an airport near you soon.