ANALYSIS: Ample growth opportunities for Alaska from Seattle Tacoma

Washington DC
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There are more than 25 unserved or underserved cities in the Midwestern or eastern USA that Alaska Airlines could add nonstop flights to from Seattle Tacoma International airport.

While these include some hubs of competing carriers, for example Charlotte, Chicago Midway and Washington Dulles, 17 mid-size markets remain as potential destinations for the Seattle-based carrier based on the US Department of Transportation's (DOT's) top 100 markets for departing passengers from the Washington state airport during the first seven months of 2013. The data comes T-100 market data collected by the regulator.

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Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dallas Love Field are at the top of the list. The first two are both served up to once daily by Southwest Airlines on Boeing 737 aircraft that seat about 137 passengers – or slightly more than the average number of people who flew between Seattle and Albuquerque per day – Innovata schedules show.

Cincinnati and Cleveland are two former hubs that have either seen significant reductions or lost their nonstop service to Seattle Tacoma recently. Delta Air Lines has downsized its Cincinnati operations but maintains a seasonal summer flight, while United will cut its seasonal Cleveland flight as part of the downsizing of its hub at the airport by June.

Alaska has shown a preference for new service to Delta hubs - Salt Lake City in 2013 and Detroit this coming September - since the Atlanta-based carrier began encroaching on its core markets from Seattle Tacoma during the past year. This could push Cincinnati up the list of potential new destinations.

Dallas Love will become a possibility for nonstop service from Seattle Tacoma after the Wright Amendment restrictions on the airport are lifted this October. Southwest, which has a large base at the airport, did not include a nonstop Seattle flight in its planned new routes from Dallas Love from October.

However, Alaska does fly to nearby Dallas/Fort Worth International where its passengers can connect to its codeshare partner American Airlines.

Ben Munson, director of network planning at Alaska, told Airline Business in November 2013 that the airline has had “a lot of success” expanding into mid-size US markets where there is limited competition flying to Seattle. Recent additions include Kansas City, Omaha and San Antonio.

Alaska has announced plans to add service to New Orleans and Tampa from this June. Neither market has a nonstop flight to Seattle Tacoma currently.

New Orleans saw an average of 12.5 passengers per day and Tampa 3.8 passengers per day to Seattle Tacoma from January to June 2013, DOT data shows. This is fewer than the numbers for Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Cleveland or Dallas Love, but on par with other cities that lack nonstop flights in the market, including Raleigh-Durham, El Paso and Indianapolis.

But daily passenger traffic is clearly not the only metric driving Alaska’s network decisions. Zero people flew between Seattle Tacoma and Colorado Springs during the first seven months of 2013, according to the DOT. Despite this, it was one of the few new markets that the carrier added from Seattle in 2013.

Available seat miles (ASMs) at Alaska are expected to grow by 5.5% in 2014, according to the airline. It is scheduled to take delivery of 10 Boeing 737-900ER aircraft during the year.