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Last week, Alaska put out a press release that seemed to simply cobble together two unrelated new routes — Los Angeles to Austin and San Diego to New York/JFK — for the sake of news. It turns out, there’s more than meets the eye. There is a connection between these two routes, and the common thread is… oneworld. I spoke with Brett Catlin, Alaska’s VP of Network and Alliances, and he told me that without oneworld, which it joins in just a short few weeks, they probably would not have gone into either one of these.
Austin to Los Angeles and Across the Pacific
Beginning March 18, Alaska will start daily flights between Los Angeles and Austin using Embraer 175s. That ramps up to 3x daily starting on May 20. This market is, shall we say, just a bit crowded. Alaska will likely mark the SEVENTH airline to enter. That’s… a lot.
Of course, not all seven are flying now. If we look at January and February, Delta is in there twice a day while United and JetBlue are there 5 to 6 days a week. Spirit flies 4x weekly but goes daily in February. Southwest stopped flying it after the holidays, but it brings back 1-2x daily service in March. That leaves American as the odd man out. It hasn’t flown the route since the pandemic began.
That is a seemingly odd choice since Austin is a big American market, and you’d think it would stay connected to LA. Sure, American has pulled back in LA, but Austin is a city where American focused before the pandemic with flights to places like Boston and Cabo. It’s an important market, and it’s one place that I assume will regain service eventually. If that’s the case, then why would partner Alaska do this now?
Alaska, it turns out, has put together a nice little portfolio from Austin. It is currently flying to Seattle 1-2x daily, San Diego 1x daily, San Jose 1x daily, and San Francisco 5x weekly. (This weekend, Alaska quietly filed plans to ramp up San Francisco flying to 3x daily to match LA.) Portland has been suspended since the end of November, but it’s currently in the March schedule. I have no idea if that will hold. Either way, LA was a fairly obvious hole in the Austin network for Alaska. With over a thousand passengers a day during normal times (according to Cirium data), LA is just a huge market, albeit at a low fare.
If Alaska was going to compete alone in this market, it would probably be a bad idea. Partnering with American helps, because it should enable better frequency coverage. It also taps into the pool of AAdvantage elite members. This is, after all, a business market… or it will be when business returns. Alaska tells me that it will fly a morning/mid-day/evening flight pattern. If American does come back, then it can only add to the number of options. But even that alone seems like it’s not the best plan. For Alaska, the real key is oneworld.
Looking at Cirium’s IATA/ARC data, in 2019 there were about 240 per day flying from Austin to East/Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. About 80 of those fly on oneworld carriers. Alaska feeds about 20 of those, but nearly half that number is on cross-alliance feed to EVA via SF or Seattle. Alaska sees real opportunity to get more of those oneworld people on its airplanes, if it can better connect to main gateways like LAX and San Francisco.
Keeping in mind these are all 76-seat airplanes, Alaska is looking at trying to fill 228 seats each way per day. If it can grab some high-dollar premium cabin fares through oneworld, then it might have a better shot of success overall.
San Diego to JFK and Across the Atlantic
Then there’s San Diego – JFK which is about taking people in the other direction. This is mostly a battle between JetBlue and Delta with both normally having 2 or 3 daily flights. Now they have far less, but I’m sure they will eventually return. The only other player in this market is American which last flew it in Jan/Feb of 2020, but that was a brief blip after last canceling in the middle of 2019. American does have this in the currently-filed schedule for March 2021, but that is just a placeholder schedule. I have no idea if it will ever come back.
San Diego to Europe/Middle East/Africa is much bigger than the Austin potential market. In 2019, there were just over 800 people per day flying between the two areas, but only about 50 went through JFK. Alaska touched less than 20 flying between the two, a far smaller percentage than it took from Austin.
Currently oneworld takes about 320 people a day with American being responsible for about 100 of those. Of course, nearly all of those on American go through other hubs. With American pledging to build up JFK as an international gateway — primarily fed by JetBlue — Alaska must see the opportunity to scoop up some of that traffic as well, especially since it will have a leg up on JetBlue for feed as a full-fledged oneworld member with more seamless connectivity.
Playing a Game of Chicken
In both these cases, if American were providing enough feed, Alaska wouldn’t matter very much. That’s why I can only wonder if Alaska is playing a game of chicken here. It can’t coordinate with American, nor does it want to be caught signaling to them, naturally. So I can only assume that these new routes smell like some kind of opportunity for Alaska even if American does come back. The opportunity, however, will likely be far worse than if American were to go away.
If I’m at American now, I have to look at this and think… what makes sense? I still think American serving Austin to LA is important. But what if I now can focus on the local business market and maybe not need the three or four flights I was operating before? I could fly at the most profitable times for my local market, and let Alaska handle the rest. Knowing that elite members will be treated the same on either airplane, that’s a viable option to help American market better frequency while also not having to fly during soft times.
On the other hand, JFK to San Diego is a market that American probably doesn’t want to serve at all. I’m not sure if American had a corporate contract there, but it has limped in and out of the market for a couple years. It did fill 81 percent of its seats on the route when it operated in 2019, but it bought that traffic. Delta and JetBlue both pulled roughly $260 as an average fare in the local market — JetBlue a little more, Delta a little less — while American was under $200.
San Diego has been a strategic market for Alaska for some time, and the JFK route is one that its biggest local competitor — Southwest — won’t operate. So there is some method to this madness. If it’s a market American doesn’t want to fly anyway, then maybe Alaska being in it will allow American to truly let go.
Either way, there is a lot of gray area here. I’m sure Alaska and American aren’t actually coordinating, but that doesn’t mean they can’t influence each other’s moves as they plow forward.