San Diego International airport struck veritable airport gold last year when it landed a new nonstop to Tokyo Narita on Japan Airlines' (JAL) Boeing 787-8. Long a so-called drive market to the plethora of international departures from Los Angeles International about 192km (120 miles) to the northwest, the airport hopes that the new route will be a game changer for locals wishing to travel abroad.
San Diego Airport
"[The] new service connecting San Diego to Asia nonstop for the first time is being made possible by one of the world's great carriers, Japan Airlines," said Thella Bowens, president and chief executive of the airport operator San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, at the launch of the new flight. "We're thrilled this service showcases one of the world's most innovative and exciting new planes, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner - truly a dream aircraft for the San Diego market!"
The aircraft made the flight to Tokyo possible with an "economically viable payload", as San Diego airport director of air service development Hampton Brown puts it. Other cities it deems economically feasible include Beijing and Seoul Incheon, but it is focused on developing JAL's flight and not on new services for now.
"Our first priority is to make sure that JAL is successful here," says Brown. "After three or so years we will revaluate Asia and see what other opportunities might exist at that time."
Asia is not the only new market for San Diego. Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines and US Airways have all added new nonstops from the airport during the past year. New destinations include Colorado Springs, Orlando and Washington National.
Drive around the San Diego area and it is shocking that it only just got its first nonstop to Asia. The metropolitan region is home to the North American headquarters to such Japanese corporate heavyweights as Kyocera and Sony Electronics not to mention one of the largest Filipino populations in the USA.
A little more than 11% of the metropolitan area's 3.1 million people - or about 340,000 people - were of non-Hispanic Asian descent in 2010, according to the US census.
"We had the largest Asian community in the USA without a direct service to Asia," says Brown. "On paper, it looked like Orlando was the largest market without service but, when you add the drive market from San Diego, [Asia was] significantly larger than Orlando."
That changed when JAL began flights on 2 December 2012.
Brown says that the Tokyo service was the culmination of various factors, including development work by the airport and homework on the part of JAL. But it was really the introduction of the 787 that made it possible.
San Diego airport lies in a bowl between the Point Loma Heights to the west and Bankers Hill to the east. Add to that its single 2,865m (9,401 foot) runway and you have a challenging scenario for large jets when weighted down with full loads of fuel and passengers.
"Much beyond [Tokyo, Beijing or Seoul], there has to be another technical leap in manufacturing to make us in the range of Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila and Shanghai nonstop," says Brown.
The airport can handle large jets other than the 787. British Airways flies a Boeing 777-200 to London Heathrow and Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A330-200s and Boeing 767-300ERs to Honolulu, but both of these routes are shorter than Tokyo, which makes the services viable on the older widebodies.
Seattle-based Alaska expanded capacity in San Diego by nearly two-thirds from 2010 to 2012, according to Flightglobal/Innovata data. The carrier and its regional subsidiary Horizon Air added new nonstops to Fresno, Honolulu, Kahului (Maui), Monterey, Orlando, Puerto Vallarta and Santa Rosa, which drove the increase in available seat kilometres to 1.6 billion from about 985 million during the period.
The dramatic growth has prompted some Wall Street analysts to ask whether the airline is beginning to consider San Diego a focus city. Alaska Airlines routes from San Diego, January 2013
Innovata FlightMaps Analytics
"We've been in San Diego a long, long time, and what you've seen there is just a continued increase," said Andrew Harrison, vice-president of planning and revenue management at Alaska, during an earnings call in July 2012. "I wouldn't call it we're building up a hub, but I think what we're doing, as we've shared, is continuing to expand our footprint on the West Coast and in areas that we believe make sense for our brand."
Brown sees opportunity for further growth by Alaska. "When you look at its network and its growth planes coming down the line, the opportunities that it has out of its core airports - Seattle and Portland - are limited at this point," he says. "There are opportunities in other places, like San Diego, and we are happy to help them realise growth possibilities to strengthen the overall network of Alaska."
He indicates that the airport is well positioned for connecting traffic flows to the south, including Florida and Latin America, and to Hawaii.
Spirit entered the San Diego market with flights to Las Vegas in November 2011, and has since added service to Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Cabos and Portland (Oregon). Frontier also added flights to Colorado Springs in September 2012 and US Airways to Washington National in July 2012.
Southwest Airlines remains the top carrier at San Diego. The Dallas-based low-cost carrier (LCC) carried more than 39% of enplaned passengers at the airport during the year ending 30 September 2012, according to US Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics. United Airlines was second with a nearly 14% share of enplaned passengers followed by Delta Air Lines with a nearly 11% share. Alaska was sixth with only a 6.6% share.
San Diego airport still has its challenges even with all the new service. Not least of these is the fact that it is the busiest single runway airport in the USA and hemmed in on all sides by the city and water. But if recent developments hold, the future appears bright for the airport.
Flightglobal looks at where the San Diego airport wants to go next for air service and its capacity constraints here.