The Cranky Flier Interview: Northern Pacific CEO Rob McKinney

Podcast, The Cranky Flier Interview

It’s time for another Cranky Flier Interview, and this time, it’s with Northern Pacific’s CEO Rob McKinney, an airline that hopes to get off the ground later this year, COVID-willing.

No, Northern Pacific is not a fictitious airline from a movie. Nor is it Pacific Northern, the airline that merged into Western way back in the day. It is the new airline branch of Ravn Alaska, the commuter operator that now has much bigger plans.

Northern Pacific will be the brand that uses 757s to connect the continental US to North Asia via Anchorage. It’s a throwback in that sense… airlines haven’t needed to stop in Anchorage for decades. But Rob thinks he’s on to something here with low fares and a decent product.

Rob and his team were down here in SoCal this week to unveil the livery on the first 757 where it was painted at San Bernardino International Airport, and I had 15 minutes to chat with him. As for the 757, well, it looks good, but then again, you can’t make a 757 look ugly. I dare you. It’s impossible. If you’d like to watch, here’s a 3 minute video of the dramatic rollout, or, roll-in as the case may be.

Download the episode here or listen below.

Thank you to our presenting sponsor Ontario International Airport.

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14 comments on “The Cranky Flier Interview: Northern Pacific CEO Rob McKinney

  1. I took up your dare and I googled for: “ugly 757-200 color scheme”

    …the result:
    It looks like there aren’t many great matches for your search
    Tip: Try using words that might appear on the page you’re looking for. For example, “cake recipes” instead of “how to make a cake.”
    Need help? Check out other tips for searching on Google.

    :)

    1. Thanks Outer Space Guy – so I followed up and looked in duckduckgo and got the following interesting response! Among the ugliest (unfortunately!) was the Shorts 330, and Shorts Skyvan (courtesy of “Ask the Pilot”): https://askthepilot.com/ugliest-planes/.
      I think it’s unfortunate, because Shorts designed (unpressurised) cabins that actually generate “lift”, supplementing the lift generated by the wings. Quite an innovative design.
      While this has stayed a tad from CF’s original comment about color schemes I thought it was worth passing on!
      Enjoy!

      1. I’m going to have to politely but firmly disagree with the author of that link about Connies.

        Yes, larger low-wing prop planes look a little odd on the ground; having to basically use stilts for the landing gear in order to get enough prop clearance is tough to over come from an aesthetic side. However, in an era of sameness, where plugs are added and moved from airliners as needed based on airlines’ demands for models with more/less capacity, the continuously sweeping fuselage profile of the Connie looks very unique and elegant to me, like a dolphin or porpoise jumping from the waves, though I can see how the swoop might be a bit much for some people. Stepping inside a Connie a month ago (The Airline History Museum in Kansas City isn’t huge, but it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area, and has some rare planes) was a bucket list item for me.

      1. If it was the classic colours with the Snoopy nose, I’d be happy…but like all other Alitalia planes it’d lose money.

  2. I’m not sure if this business model will work, but I’m definitely rooting for Northern Pacific. Kudos to them for having the courage to try a different business concept. Always fascinating to hear about startup companies like this.

    I do wonder about the limited number of destinations on the Asian side, though; 4000 miles from ANC gets Japan, Korea, and NE China, and not much else, unless you count Scandinavia at the very extreme end of the range, but it’s hard to see the value/convenience of a stop in ANC on the way to Scandinavia.

    In contrast, 4000 miles from ANC puts almost all of the US, Canada, and Mexico (with the exceptions of southern FL and SE Mexico) within range.

    To save others a few clicks…
    * Here’s the approximate range of Northern Pacific’s fleet (4000 mi from ANC): http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?R=4000mi%40anc
    * Here’s the MCO-ANC-ICN path, compared to MCO-ICN direct: http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=mco-anc-icn,+mco-icn

  3. Plenty of questions surrounding Northern Pacific. Why and under what circumstances did the CEO leave his last job the day the company declared bankruptcy? This speaks to his fitness to lead a Part 121 carrier. Another issue is safety: Raven Alaska’s safety record is marked with crashes. The final piece of the puzzle is financing. Word is the money behind this is crypto-currency from Southern California. If true, due to the volatility of crypto, this may not be a stable source of financing. So the carrier faces serious questions on Leadership, Safety and Financing. That’s a trifecta of negativity.

  4. The news about Northern Pacific mixed with your article last week about how Asia has virtually disappeared from the US route map seems like a recipe for disaster. I understand trying to emulate FI’s strategy but Europe is much closer to the US than Asia and allows them to keep their costs much lower than Northern Pacific will be able to. They’ll also need far more A/C to make the network work due to the long stage lengths whereas FI can run the same planes east to KEF and then beyond into Europe and back west to KEF and the US/Canada all in the same day, creating connections on virtually every O&D on each side of the pond.

  5. As Cranky and others have mentioned, the Asia side really seems to be the weak piece here, with only Japan and Korea (and maybe some obscure bits of China) in range from ANC on 757s. There are already tons of cheap flights to Asia. And out of at least two of their anticipated markets (SFO and LAX), one can fly non-stop or one-stop to all of their anticipated Asian destinations on many different Asian airlines flying modern widebodies with high-quality service. The notion that Northern Pacific is going to in any way exceed the quality of service offered on JAL, ANA, KAL, Asiana, etc. is laughable. (And the frequent flier miles as crypto thing seems gimmicky, and unlikely to matter to its target demographic, which is apparently people who want to spend as little as possible on a flight.)

    On the North American side of things, Alaska Airlines is likely to respond pretty aggressively to competition from the lower 48 into its ANC hub (e.g., on LAX, LAS, PHX, and maybe SFO flights), just as it did against Mark Air (RIP, 1946-1996). Like Ravn/Northern Pacific, Mark Air was a regional carrier within the state of Alaska, which in the early 1990s shifted strategy and started competing on routes from ANC to the lower 48. Alaska competed hard and drove Mark Air into bankruptcy. This seems like a real risk for Northern Pacific if it ends up focusing more on local traffic to ANC and Alaska rather than connecting traffic to Asia.

  6. There’s been a lot of buzz about Northern Pacific recently. The airline is acquiring aircraft and what was the former railroad (now part of BNSF) is reacquiring part of itself that it had spun off is a lease arrangement. While they may be unrelated, and really aren’t in 99% of the possible ways, there’s a somewhat obscure tie-in (I’m the king of obscure tie-ins, so here goes).

    The Northern Pacific Railroad was the first one built between Minneapolis/St. Paul/Duluth and the Pacific Northwest. In the late 1890s, it was acquired by the Great Northern, founded by James J. Hill. Here’s the tie-in: The Great Northern was often referred to as “Hill’s Folly” by its skeptics. It was built in a virtually unpopulated area, but it had one big advantage: much lower operating costs because of the fact its grades were lower and fewer than its competitors. “Hill’s Folly” ended up acquiring most of the railroads along the northern tier of the lower 48, and was the foundation for what is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Some folly.

    To be fair to the skeptics, most business start-ups fail. How many airlines founded since deregulation are still in business? Failure may happen to this iteration of the Northern Pacific. But the only way to find out if a business idea will work is to give it a shot. How many people thought Allegiant would become what it is? I tend to think the Nothern Pacific has a chance to succeed, but I also think it’ll improve its chances if it focuses on places like Boise, Phoenix, Tucson, Colorado Springs, Palm Springs, Albuquerque, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, etc. – cities that already require a connection to get to and from North America to Asia. Just some thoughts and speculation.

  7. I love a creative use of 757s, but I’m extremely skeptical. They’re not just relying on spillover demand for the big gateways such as SFO/LAX/NYC, all of the other proposed North American destinations have ample one-stop service to Asia via SFO, SEA, LAX, and in the case of Tokyo even via secondary west coast airports such as PDX , SAN, SJC, not to mention Air Canada’s YVR operation. All of these carriers can also presumably command a price premium over Northern Pacific due to stronger O&D demand on both the North American and transpacific segments. They can also reliably offer these services year-round without an extra fuel tank or weight restrictions(but to be fair, I don’t know how much that would actually impact demand as it seems to have had a negligible impact on impact 737’s to Hawai’i/757’s to continental Europe).

    While there’s discussion of an O&D market on the Asian side to Alaska, I’m extremely doubtful when not one Korean, Japanese, or US carrier has recently attempted a passenger service even on ICN/NRT-ANC in the summer. This is in stark contrast to other leisure desinations outside the US lower 48 such as HNL/GUM, which have a ton of capacity from KE, NH/JL, and UA/DL. Between around 11am-1pm, you could be forgiven for mistaking HNL for a Japanese airport with all the 767s, 777s, and 787s ANA and JAL send daily, and even a decent Asian LCC presence. Meanwhile, ANC’s only international service is to Frankfurt and Vancouver, despite being geographically closer to Japan than Hawai’i. All in all, it’ll definitely be interesting to watch, but I’m not optimistic.

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