ANALYSIS: Low-hanging fruit between Los Angeles and San Francisco?

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Delta Air Lines is planning its first west coast shuttle. Flights will ply the California skies between Los Angeles and San Francisco 14 times a day each weekday beginning at 07:00 from 4 September.

"Our new Delta Shuttle on the West Coast is designed to make doing business between Los Angeles and San Francisco easier," said Tim Mapes, senior vice-president of marketing at the Atlanta-based carrier, in a statement.

The shuttle announcement follows others by Delta for a plethora of new routes from Los Angeles. New destinations include Anchorage, Belize City, Boston, Bozeman, Leon/Guanajuato, Nashville, San Jose (California), Seattle and Spokane.

"With our growth in Los Angeles, our on-going investments to transform terminal 5 and the introduction of more convenient schedules, we're listening carefully to customers and doing everything possible to give them the experience they want from Delta," continued Mapes.

But Los Angeles-San Francisco - is the network planning team in Atlanta crazy?

The California trunk route is one of the most competitive markets in the USA with multiple weekday flights on American Airlines, Delta, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin America. Seat capacity has doubled to more than 200,000 seats per month during the past decade, according to Innovata data.

Innovata

Airfares have declined by about 30% when adjusted for inflation to an average of $122 one-way from September 2003 to September 2012, US Department of Transportation (DOT) data shows. The average one-way airfare was $140 in 2003.

"This is part of Delta's strategy to improve its utility out of its Los Angeles hub," says Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing. "This is a very disciplined approach by Delta. You're not seeing them promise back-up airplanes [or] go in with mainline aircraft."

Delta will only add three additional flights every weekday on the route while harmonising its operations on 76-seat Embraer 175 aircraft operated by Compass Airlines instead of a mixture of Bombardier CRJ700 and CRJ900 equipment. It will also offer free newspapers at airport gates, as well as free snacks, beer and wine inflight.

These check the schedule and product boxes in terms of the carrier's three-prong strategy to attract and retain business customers. The third prong - on-time performance - is one that Delta is hoping that it can improve on compared to market leader United, says Harteveldt.

"Delta may smell some blood in the water, especially when it comes to business travellers," he says.

Flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco were on-time 73% of the time on United and 72% of the time on Delta between 1 June and 31 July, according to Flightstats data. About 13% of United flights were excessively delayed - delays more than 45min - and 1% were cancelled, while 11% of Delta flights were excessively delayed and 2% cancelled during the period.

Chicago-based United offers 15 flights every weekday on mainline aircraft in the market. However, it does not offer any specialised product on the route.

The carrier has not commented on Delta's planned shuttle service.

Another influencing factor, and one that likely keeps American in the market, is alliance partner connectivity at Los Angeles International airport (LAX). American benefits from a large Oneworld partner presence, including Cathay Pacific Airways, Japan Airlines (JAL) and Qantas Airways, and Delta from a large SkyTeam presence, including Aeromexico, China Southern Airlines and Korean Air, at the airport.

This alliance connectivity is understood to generate a significant volume of higher yield international connecting traffic on the route, sources tell Flightglobal.

United of course also benefits from a significant amount of international feed at both LAX and San Francisco International from its own international operations as well as its Star Alliance partners.

Or maybe Delta's new shuttle is a non-event. It is only three more weekday flights in a market that the carrier has served on and off since 2006.

"This is not a battle to get traffic from somebody else," says Michael Boyd, chairman of the Boyd Group International. He adds that he sees it more as a public relations event to "keep loyal passengers in the fold" with a route that is a simple necessity of being big at LAX.