Alaska Rolls Into Burbank From San Francisco Now That Southwest is Gone

Alaska Airlines, Southwest

When Alaska bought Virgin America, it was all about growing its presence in California, and part of that strategy was growth in intra-California flying. The king of intracal, Southwest, has been pretty clear it wasn’t going to give an inch, and Alaska has danced around trying to find the right balance. I thought the airline had reached a happy place, so I was surprised to see that Alaska was going to enter Burbank – San Francisco, a market that Southwest flies along with United. It turns out, Southwest is out, and Alaska is sliding in.

The intra-California market is enormous, and it’s one that Southwest has largely dominated for many years. It’s actually been surprisingly steady for the last 20 years or so. Here’s a look at seat capacity.

Intra-California Seats by Airline

Schedule Data via Cirium

Southwest has been operating between 50 and 60 percent of seats within California for a long time, though post-pandemic as other airlines have failed to recover as quickly, Southwest has surged as high as as the upper-60 percent range. This summer it’s sitting in the low-60s.

As impressive as that may seem, it really doesn’t tell the story of travel within California. This does.

Intra-California Local Passengers by Airline

Passenger DB1B Data via Cirium

The above chart looks at the number of passengers actually starting and ending their trips within California, not just the number of seats. Southwest has fairly consistently carried between 60 and 70 percent of those travelers, punching above its weight. United, the airline with the second largest amount of capacity in the state, is actually in third place in terms of passengers with between 10 and 15 percent of local travelers. Why so low? That’s because much of United’s capacity is connecting through its LA and San Francisco hubs to go elsewhere.

What may be surprising here is that Alaska is actually the second largest carrier of local traffic within the state, hovering around the 15 percent range as of late. Much of that is thanks to some of the airline’s flying in places like Santa Rosa and San Diego. But the San Francisco (SFO) story is a different one.

Southwest has never had a very large presence at SFO thanks to its focus on Oakland, but what flying it has done from SFO has largely been to other California destinations. It had been close to a third of the SFO – California market but in the post-pandemic world it has been closer to the low to mid-20 percent range. This is not Southwest’s strongest market, obviously.

United remains the big airline there, but it only controls about a third of the intracal market. In post-pandemic times it has climbed to the mid to high-30 percent range, probably because there has been less Asian traffic connecting through and it has repurposed the capacity it has. I imagine this will change as Asia grows again. That leaves Alaska, which has grown to the mid to high 20 percent range in recent quarters.

Despite that decent share, Alaska doesn’t have as much of a presence in the SFO – California market as you might expect. It only flies to Los Angeles, Orange County, Palm Springs, and San Diego. That’s it… until now.

This past weekend, Alaska filed plans to run 3 daily Embraer 175s from San Francisco to Burbank (2 on Saturday). This is the first new California route from SFO since Orange County was launched in 2017. But why?

United has been running 3 daily regional flights, but just this month it bumped that up to 4. Southwest has been running five to six 737s a day on the route as well (2 to 3 on weekends). The market looks like this:

Burbank – San Francisco Capacity and Fares

Data via Cirium

What’s that big drop in 2024? Well that’s where things get interesting. It turns out that Southwest will be ending its flying on the Burbank route on January 7. It’s no wonder Alaska was interested in making a move.

The overall story here is that if Alaska is competing in the intra-California market, it is competing against Southwest. United matters, especially from San Francisco, but United tends to be much more concerned with that connecting hub traffic. Alaska figures with Southwest out, it has a chance to make the market work. It’s not a surprise to see this, but it is still a good reminder of just how much Southwest dictates this market.

The question now is whether Southwest decides to reverse course, or if this was just temporary in the first place. Fares weren’t all that bad in the market for Southwest — on par with San Diego and well above LA — but load factors in the winter were pretty awful. This year saw Burbank under 50 percent in January with February at 53 percent and March hitting 64 percent. The other intra-California markets were far better.

Summer tends to do at least somewhat better, so maybe Southwest was just planning on taking a break. We wouldn’t know yet since schedules are only filed into early March at this point.

Either way, what’s clear here is that if Southwest opens the door even a crack, Alaska is watching. And Alaska is ready to pounce when the opportunity arises.

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29 comments on “Alaska Rolls Into Burbank From San Francisco Now That Southwest is Gone

  1. Could it be that WN just doesn’t have the right plane for the route in winter. 50% load factor on a 737 is close to 100% full on one of AS’ 175’s. Of the 76 seats, AS will probable sell at least some FC seats which should have a higher margin.

  2. The fact that Southwest has historically been based at Oakland instead of at San Francisco International Airport is a mixed blessing for its passengers.

    Tourists will want to go to San Francisco itself to see major tourist attractions, such as the cable cars, the waterfront, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Business travelers from out of town will want to go to San Francisco’s central business district. The BART subway has a direct route from SFO airport to downtown San Francisco.

    Some residents of Northern California who don’t live in the city of San Francisco may find Oakland to be more convenient to get to, less crowded, or less expensive than SFO.

      1. True, but it’s a longer ride into SF proper and requires transfer, at the somewhat sketchy Coliseum BART station. (The only time I ever saw someone smoking meth on a BART train was heading back to the City from an A’s game.) And for anyone who’d rather take a taxi or rideshare, it’s way cheaper and faster to get into SF proper from SFO.

        Pretty much everyone who lives in the City, San Mateo, or Marin counties prefers SFO to OAK. I hate to dump on a sponsor of this site, but OAK is also the dumpiest of the three Bay Area commercial airports. SJC and SFO are just way nicer facilities.

        1. I just rode BART to an A’s game last week and it’s a long wait between trains these days, which makes it even less convenient. Plus, BART goes directly to SFO where you have to take a train from Oakland airport to the Coliseum station and then another BART line to your actual destination (or 2 if it’s on the Pittsburg/Baypiont Line).

    1. Living in the South Bay, it’s easier to get to SFO than OAK because 880 is a miserable drive while 280 is quite pleasant. Of course, I’ll fly out of SJC before either SFO and OAK since it’s actually in the South Bay.

      Oakland is useful if you are going to the East Bay, Solano County, or Napa County; though you could argue that SMF is easier for Napa and Solano Counties. For business travelers, the money is mostly in SF, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties which are all easiest accessed from SFO and SJC.

  3. To me traveling within the state meant flying PSA or Air California/AirCal back in the day. I still miss them.

    1. So do I, especially PSA. I rode on many smiling planes back in the day.

      Then there were the more…questionable post-deregulation carriers. I flew Golden Gate several times and Air 21 a few too, never flew Pacific Express (which I had, I’ll never the the BAC 1-11 on my flown-on list now.)

  4. As others have pointed out, the 737 is probably too big for some routes in shoulder and lower-demand periods, which gives AS the edge over WN with the E175s vs. WN’s 737s. There is also the perception that AS runs a better product overall than WN.

  5. I love the noticeable fare drop as soon as WN entered the market for BUR-SFO. It’s weird they would choose to pull out entirely instead of just running say 3 flights a day instead of 6.

  6. While Southwest no doubt caters heavily to O&D traffic on routes like BUR-SFO, they certainly catered to interstate stopover and connecting traffic with their service too.

    This past January, for instance, I flew DAL-BUR. If you can believe it, Southwest did (and still does) not offer any kind of nonstop service from DAL to SFO – Alaska is the only carrier flying nonstop between Love Field and San Francisco these days – so I found myself on a DAL-BUR-SFO flight.

    While it seemed like most passengers arriving from DAL did get off in BUR, the ground and air crews certainly announced that flight as a through service to SFO.

    I have to believe Southwest did everything it could to make this work. SF may simply be a tough sell for out of state and even Southern California visitors these days. Hopefully AS can now make it work; otherwise, UA will be just as outrageously expensive as they were before WN began flying the route.

  7. Back in the day it was mainly PSA with their 727’s and Air California with their 737’s. United and Western also did at least LAX-SFO.

  8. So is it REALLY Alaska flying inter California or is it Skywest or Horizon?

    Alaska mainline hasn’t even returned to 2020 fleet size.

    A minnow amongst whales. A good and profitable minnow, but small non the less.

    I’m a bit surprised that Southwest hasn’t purchased them for Max’s and pilots.

    1. Mike – It’s SkyWest. Alaska was very focused on retiring the Airbuses from Virgin America, so they’ve been hamstrung. But they have a LOT of airplanes on order and are growing fast now.

  9. I fly this route a lot. WN morning and evening nonstops are quite full, so it must be mid day that is unsold. Downsizing from 737 to RJ will NOT make this more pleasant from a passenger perspective, and I doubt AS will find three departures a day will move the needle on perception as a top California carrier. I WILL enjoy returning to SFO terminal 2 enjoyable from the needlessly lengthy walks in terminal 1.

    I also suspect WN will restart this route in some fashion as soon as AS jacks up the fares, since their RJ will be full.

    1. Being a passenger, I would much rather fly the 175 than the 737 on short routes primarily for the shorter boarding times.

      Unfortunately you will only get to enjoy T2 for a little bit, AS is scheduleed to move to T1 at SFO in 2024

      1. Agreed. I’ll take an E175 (especially with a chance of an F upgrade and Premium Class seating) any day over a 737, especially a WN 737.

    2. Mid-day on BURSJC, a similar market, is a joke. I flew it once and there were 10 of us on the plane. Because I purchased the fare a few days in advance, SW did some yield management on me and forced me to purchase a BS fare as they closed WGA. Trying to make up some lost revenue.

      So instead of cutting the mid-day flights, they cut the fringe shoulder time flights so that everyone is forced to the last departure, or the first departure to jack up the fares.

      BUR is a great place for airlines like SW to play games. BUR is a dump, and it just isn’t worth flying through anymore for me.

  10. 6 737s on this route daily seems insane. Two carriers running 3-4 RJs seems better for everybody, airlines and passengers.

    1. Also I meant to say that I REALLY appreciated the deep dive on intra California. Very interesting analysis from a great blog. As usual!

    2. Cut the flights that nobody takes in the middle of the day. Nobody is flying the route between 10am and 5pm. Instead, they keep these flights and cut the morning and evening flights so they can increase demand and thus fares. Oops!

      We see right through you, Southwest.

  11. Reminds me of the SAN-IAD battle between Alaska and United. I hate United. They are that big legacy airline that does all the hurtful things to customers. They are the bad guys.
    Alaska is the newer smaller airline that is trying to have a place in the market. They are the good guys.

    1. I’m taking that flight for business in about a month. They made the flight number 777 to troll United after they upgauged (which was in response to AS starting the route). Pretty hilarious.

  12. Alaska Airlines flight 777? I love that!
    Maybe this will mean a rivalry between the Seattle Kraken (sponsored by Alaska) and the Chicago Blackhawks (sponsored by United)!

  13. Southwest is all kinds of stupid these days. Can’t wait until they kill the BUR-SJC route too. Probably one of their best routes, but they want to shoot themselves in the foot and prefer the family that flies once per year across the country. Oh well, their loss! After what happened in December 2022, I don’t think they have much going on upstairs.

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