Alaska Turns Its California Compass to Point North

Alaska Airlines

If you saw Alaska’s press release yesterday, you’d think the airline was entering major expansion mode. Next year, the airline will add eight new routes and increase frequency on seven more. But what wasn’t mentioned in the press release is that Alaska will be cutting a ton of service to help fund these moves. It’s actually a fairly sizable shift for the airline away from east-west flying from California back toward the north-south flying with which it has succeeded over the years.

To illustrate my point, here’s a map of the new routes (green, except San Francisco – Anchorage which isn’t displayed), increased frequencies (light blue), canceled routes (red), and routes that will be reduced to seasonal service (orange).

New and Disappearing Routes generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
(Anchorage – San Francisco is a new route not shown)

Or in written form, here’s what’s new:

  • Los Angeles – Boise: 2x daily
  • Los Angeles – Missoula: 1x daily
  • Los Angeles – Redmond/Bend: daily
  • Los Angeles – Spokane: 2x daily
  • San Diego – Redmond/Bend: daily
  • San Francisco – Anchorage: 1x daily
  • San Francisco – Redmond/Bend: daily
  • San Francisco – Spokane: 2x daily

Here’s what going away:

  • Boise – Reno
  • Burbank – San Jose
  • Los Angeles – Philadelphia
  • San Diego – Albuquerque
  • San Diego – El Paso
  • San Diego – Kansas City
  • San Diego – Minneapolis/St Paul
  • San Diego – Omaha
  • San Diego – St Louis
  • San Francisco – Albuquerque
  • San Francisco – Kansas City

Here is what’s canceled in the winter but returning for summer:

  • San Diego – Baltimore
  • San Francisco – Nashville
  • San Francisco – Baltimore
  • San Francisco – Philadelphia
  • San Francisco – Raleigh/Durham

And these are the routes on which Alaska will increase frequency:

  • San Diego – Boise: 1x daily to 2x daily
  • San Diego – Boston 1x daily to 2x daily
  • San Diego – Orlando: 5x weekly to 1x daily
  • San Diego – San Jose: 4x daily to 6x daily
  • San Diego – Santa Rosa: 1x daily to 2x daily
  • San Francisco – Chicago/O’Hare: 1x daily to 2x daily
  • San Francisco – Orange County: 6x daily to 7x daily

As you can see, except for a couple of increased frequencies on existing routes, all the growth is going north-south. Some of these are markets Alaska has served before — I’m looking at you, Spokane to LA — but now with the Embraer 175 in the fleet, they might make more sense.

The majority of the cuts, however, are going east-west. You can see the red and orange splashing across the Midwest on that map above. Some routes — like LA to Philly — were killed by Virgin America only to be brought back by Alaska post-merger. That didn’t last. Others were experiments started after the merger was completed as part of the frenzied growth that came out while uniting the two networks.

San Diego is seeing the biggest changes here. Alaska is canceling six routes between San Diego and the Midwest and Southwest. Further east, Baltimore goes seasonal. In place of that, Alaska will add four daily flights heading north. It also has found success in Boston where it will add a second daily flight along with two more weekly flights to Orlando. Those are the only two frequency increases in an east-west market save the one extra flight between San Francisco and Chicago.

Those three extra frequencies show that this isn’t entirely about culling east-west flying in favor of north-south. This is about getting rid of underperforming flights and finding new places to fly those airplanes. It just so happens that most of the underperformers happen to be flying east-west. There are a couple exceptions including Boise to to Reno and Burbank to San Jose, a long-time laggard in the intra-California market. But those are rare in this announcement.

There’s nothing wrong with trying new markets and cutting what doesn’t work. It’s just rather telling when there are such broad trends as we can see here. I’d imagine this will improve Alaska’s profitability as it plays to its strengths, even if it means that expansion opportunities heading east aren’t as good as they had hoped. That is good news for the bottom line even if it gives some concern about future growth potential.

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23 comments on “Alaska Turns Its California Compass to Point North

  1. I’m shocked that the Nashville route is going seasonal. Given that Nashville is home to much of music entertainment, is growing business-wise exponentially (and, by extension, has many families and millenials moving into Nashville), and is now the Bachelor/Bachelorette Party capital of the world (taking over Vegas), you would think that would be an easy route to maintain.

    Of course, I’m no expert on this, and I’m sure they’ve done their homework on it. But, still, I’m shocked it didn’t work.

  2. Even those frequency increases don’t tell the full story, SFO-ORD was at twice daily for a long time before they cut part of the year to once daily. So it was never fully once daily. And who knows how long it will stay twice daily. BOS-SFO is now down to 1x daily on many days when it had been always 2x daily even in winter time. BOS-SAN maybe going to 2x daily now, but with B6 going to mostly 3x daily on this route, it will no longer be under served compared to this year. And AS had only been doing okay here because B6 has been milking the route. I don’tt see that second flight lasting. And given that they are losing 1 slot at SNA next year, that extra frequency from SFO will mean losing 2 flights elsewhere for SNA.

    To me, all the additional frequencies were just announced to mask the frequency trims that will have to be made elsewhere that hasn’t been announced yet.

    This is a huge list of cuts out of SFO/SAN with only some short routes added. Given AS’s aggressive adds at SEA next year, it’s understandable why underperforming SFO/SAN are cut or trimmed. AS knows it’s in a life and death struggle in SEA and is pouring all its resources back to PNW and giving up on trying to be carrier of choice in California.

    1. I think Alaska will be fine at SeaTac because I don’t think Delta is interested in serving everything that AS does. I think they are mostly interested in feeding their international routes and filling out other flights to make it a hub.

      AS was in the process of adding north – south flights along the west coast before the VX merger. I thought they bought VX for their east – west routes out of California and now they own them, they tried to do some from San Diego and now have realized that a lot of them don’t perform well. I think AS will regret the day they bought VX for that price.

    2. What does this have to do with SEA? None of the routes mentioned involve SEA, and adding flights in places like BOI and GEG has nothing to do with SEA either. I think you are judging this too much on the number of dots on a map and that AS will have fewer of them (at least from California). As Cranky said, they are just focusing on North-South traffic, where they do better, and other points of strength. Obviously people were not interested in those midwest routes, at least not in less the fares were cheap. If they were, they’d still be flying them.

      1. airlines have fixed resources. When AS does a lot of adds at SEA, it needs to subtract elsewhere. And that’s what you are seeing. Everything is related.

  3. At least it’s known what service will be cancelled or altered in some way.

    Most Airlines just announce new service, but never say what service is being removed.

    So nice to see the full picture of what comes and goes.

  4. AS is going to have a rough time East of Denver when most destinations have only 1 maybe 2 daily flights, and those with one are timed for West Coast traveling East for a meeting and leaving in the evening, not East going West.

    1. That’s what they did before taking over Virgin America, and that’s what Virgin America did in many markets as well, and that worked quite well.
      It’s just a matter of choosing which markets to serve and pricing them right.

  5. The first time ever that 25 Alaska cities are mentioned, without SEA or PDX being one of them.

    Alaska would probably like to add more, but are suffering a bit from lack of MAX8 deliveries.

  6. southbay flyer – yes

    HT – yes to all that, except mostly pertains to the Midwest. Who in their right mind from the Bay Area would so a bachelor(ette) party in BNA? Not enough, for sure.

    MattD – lifetime Gold on AA here (whoop de do) but I would be all over a merged AS/B6

    1. southbay – yes, in that they may regret the merger. Not sure they had a choice, had to make a defensive move as B6 was not in play

  7. I’ll just echo David SF’s thanks for presenting the contraction side of the expansion coin.

    I like some of the expanded north-south routes and hope they last. As Cranky pointed out, “new” routes like GEG-LAX aren’t really new but resurrected – now to be operated with E175s rather than 737s. Maybe higher frequency with smaller aircraft will work financially and compete with the likes of DL’s daily round trip (?). AS will now also go head-to-head with UA on GEG-SFO, which might make sense for point-to-point travelers.

    Nonetheless, this latest expansion-contraction-cancellation plan is mostly disappointing and concerning. I’m still a fairly keen Alaska Airlines loyalist, MileagePlan member for (Yikes!!!) about 30 years, and not-so-infrequent flyer (from MRY and SJC). When Alaska acquired Virgin America, I somehow thought the network would gradually grow on east-west routes so that AS could eventually compete with the majors and Southwest. Silly of me to hope for such a thing.

    I had hoped that, some day, maybe I could book flights from SJC to the East Coast or maybe even connecting flights from MRY to the East Coast through a hub or semi-hub like LAX or SAN, rather than being forced to fly United or American from central California (through LAX, SFO, or PHX). AS’s east-west routes are really only attractive and practical for travelers departing from big cities (SEA, PDX, SFO, LAX, or SAN), which don’t actually function as connecting hubs if you’re flying up or down the West Coast. If I want to fly AS from MRY, the only destination is SAN, which is pretty useless as a “hub” for eastbound flights.

    The two daily SFO-GEG flights are kind of confusing to me because (a) they compete directly with UA and (b) they probably can’t offer too many connecting options (unlike UA, for whom SFO is a true hub). It would make lots more sense to me if those flights served SJC and/or OAK, where AS would compete with WN but which seem like much more attractive airports for point-to-point (rather than connecting) travelers. Considering the number of West Coast cities that have AS flights, it’s pretty peculiar that it can be so difficult to travel among the smaller ones without connecting in SEA or PDX. Where Alaska seems to have a clear advantage over the competition, the company really doesn’t seem to use it.

  8. As an SFO based traveler who goes to GEG regularly for work, I am happy about the new flights. The UA frequencies were only early morning and midday returns (optimized for Int’l connections). In the summers UA sends a CRJ200 back in the evenings – I think @cranky has explained many times why this is less than ideal. I would actually travel via SEA to get a later flight out of GEG when work meetings necessitated it. Yes, WN to OAK is another option – and use this flight as well. But with status, prefer AS (and easy upgrades) on the ERJ 175 and its more lucrative mileage program. Plus competition at SFO is good to keep UA in check.

  9. This latest schedule change is simply the reality that AS tried to grow into the transcon markets which it inherited from VX but many of them are not working. AS made the decision not to have a premium lie flat cabin while most other airlines on those routes have them. There is little incentive for high value travelers to choose AS on transcon routes and their route pullbacks confirm what DOT data shows – that you can’t get even industry average costs w/ an inferior premium cabin product.
    AS made the decision based on fleet commonality not to try to compete in the premium lie flat cabin but the result is that large portions of their network acquired from VX doesn’t work.
    The choice to redeploy assets is to their strength markets in the Pacific Northwest and generally north-south instead of east-west.

    AS’ competitors in the transcon market rejoice with every schedule change.

    1. I don’t think that any of the cancelled routes would have major competition in the form of a flat bed seat. IMO, I don’t care about a lie flat unless it’s an overnight route. I just think that they just cut some marginal routes or routes that go to a hub of a competitor (or 2 AA hubs in the case of LAX – PHL).

      1. Many of the cancelled routes are part of the halo effect from a larger coast to coast presence which AS can’t sustain.
        Many passengers can live with traditional domestic first class service but a richer FF program and more opportunities to upgrade to a more luxurious product means the highest value passengers choose airlines w/ lie flat products, esp. since corporate travel involves negotiated fares and the big boys negotiate to get the highest value passengers
        As you note below, there is value in complexity for legacy airlines even though we heard for years about how simplicity among low cost carriers was the key to success in the airline marketplace

  10. re-focusing on flying intra-west short-haul is one of those short-term wise long-term dumb moves – boosting short term yields and PRASM but also killing customer loyalty cuz maybe someone forgot to tell them west coasters actually visit places in central and eastern time zones and not stay within Pacific Time Zone cocoon.

    Southwest is finding out the hard way lately that there’s a ceiling to customer loyalty when they’re forced by the competitive nature of the industry to start flying longer hauls than just DAL-HOU shuttles every 5 minutes. As of their EWR collapse, WN won’t offer a single transcon-like service to NYC at all (i use that term ultra broadly to allow for things like PHX/SLC-NYC to be counted, and no ISP doesn’t count).

    AS might get themselves into the same quagmire if this “short-haul” over-focus continues.

    1. Customer loyalty died a long time ago. AS doesn’t have a big enough network to be a frequent flyer’s sole airline. They are better off simply focusing on competing in markets where they can compete effectively, rather than trying to be all things to their customers.

    2. There is still loyalty for those of us who fly 75,000+ a year since there is still some value in the perks the legacy airlines offer. Alaska’s big problem is that if I want to go to JAX, BDL, PWM, or any other smaller east coast city; I can’t fly them even if I wanted to even with a connection. All three legacies can do this.

      The WN model of no seat assignments is best for short hauls like DAL – HOU. If I’m flying transcon, I’m not flying unless I can get a seat that has more legroom and preferably not on a 737.

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