Southwest Airlines has made its first formal move into the escalating battle for passengers on the US west coast, with new service to four destinations from San Diego International airport.
The Dallas-based low-fare carrier will add new nonstops to New Orleans, Orlando, Portland (Oregon) and Seattle – three of which are routes dominated by Alaska Airlines – in April 2014 and June 2014.
This marks the first time Southwest has publicly stepped up competition with Alaska, who also faces challenges from Delta Air Lines at its Seattle Tacoma International airport base.
Atlanta-based Delta announced in November that it would enter the Seattle-San Diego market itself with four daily flights from June 2014.
Prior to Delta’s announcement, Alaska was the only airline operating.
The additional service will double the number of available daily flights to 14 per day across the three carriers from the six or seven per day currently on Alaska, Innovata schedules show. Capacity will increase significantly as well but not double, as both Delta and Southwest will operate smaller aircraft on the route.
Delta plans to fly 76-seat Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft and Southwest likely a combination of up to 143-seat Boeing 737-700 and 175-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft on the route between Seattle and San Diego.
Alaska flies a combination of 124-seat 737-700s, up to 160-seat 737-800s and 181-seat 737-900ERs on the route, according to Innovata.
Southwest’s motives for only now joining its competition and adding new flights along the west coast are unclear. Alaska began expanding in San Diego, a stronghold for the carrier, nearly two years ago, incrementally launching nonstop flights along with its regional subsidiary Horizon Air to Boise, Boston, Fresno, Lihue, Monterey, Orlando and Santa Rosa.
None of Alaska’s new San Diego routes were previously served by Southwest.
With the build-up, Alaska’s seat capacity in San Diego increased by more than a quarter to more than one million seats during the year ending 30 November compared to a year earlier, Flightglobal/Innovata data shows.
The carrier was the fifth largest at San Diego after Southwest, United Airlines, Delta and American Airlines in terms of passengers boarded during the year ending 30 September, US Department of Transportation (DOT) data shows.
One reason for Southwest’s San Diego announcement could be Alaska’s decision to launch new nonstops from Salt Lake City International airport to Los Angeles, Portland (Oregon), San Diego and San Jose from 9 June 2014.
Southwest is the second largest carrier in Salt Lake City after Delta, DOT data shows, and offers service on the Los Angeles and Portland routes.
One thing is clear from Southwest’s expansion in San Diego – the southern California market is important enough to the airline that it’s willing to defend its leading position there. Conversely, that is not true of the Reno-Tahoe area.
Southwest will end its long-standing Reno-Portland and Reno-Seattle nonstops under the same schedule update as the new San Diego services. Both of these routes are now exclusively flown by Alaska and Horizon, the former of which only began in November.
Alaska executives have said repeatedly that they will protect their core markets “aggressively” from new competition. While they did not elaborate on what this means, they have launched frequent flier promotions in Seattle clearly aimed at retaining travellers who may consider switching to Delta, added capacity in markets that Delta has announced new service in and, of course, the expansion in Salt Lake City – one of Delta’s primary hubs.
The carrier says that the new flights have been planned for a while and that Salt Lake City has “long been a top requested market by our customers”. The timing of the new routes being simply coincidental, it says.
Complicating the situation is Alaska and Delta’s close-knit partnership that includes a codeshare as well as reciprocal frequent flier benefits, including elite perks.
“You just look at what’s going on and a reasonable person would think that there is something going on between two airlines,” says Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Cowen Securities in New York. "They’re definitely having a lovers quarrel.”
Alaska and Delta say that their partnership is sound and that they partner in some markets and compete in others.
Becker postulates that Alaska’s preference to partner with a broad swath of airlines, including foreign carriers like Emirates that Delta has claimed compete with US carriers on an unfair playing field due to state support they receive, has led to some form of discontent at Delta, which prefers more exclusive partners.
What happens next is unclear. Alaska and Southwest are two strong players on the west coast, with well-established north-south operations that have been around for decades. On the other hand, Delta is the country’s third largest carrier by passengers carried with a wide network of corporate contracts and significant international feed in Seattle to support domestic operations.
“I definitely think this is not going to stop in the short term,” says Becker. Few do.