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  • ROUTES: Virgin America acquisition 'propelled' Alaska's growth

ROUTES: Virgin America acquisition 'propelled' Alaska's growth

The acquisition of Virgin America has "propelled" Alaska Airlines Group "five-plus years into the future", the buyer's vice-president of capacity John Kirby believes.

Speaking at an airline briefing at World Routes in Barcelona on 24 September, Kirby said the tie-up had given Alaska the "critical mass" it needed to develop its market presence in California – a state of 39 million people.

"It's given us a strong position, it's given us a platform for growth, and it's given us critical mass so we can go out and compete," says Kirby.

Following the acquisition in December 2016, Alaska announced 37 new destinations to be flown by a combination of mainline and regional partners operating Embraer 175s.

Kirby says these jets allow the airline to operate longer stages than it had previously been able to do with Bombardier Q400s, and says they offer a superior experience in terms of passenger comfort.

The aircraft are being used on routes that are initially "too small" for mainline jets, such as Seattle-Milwaukee, but that "tend to grow" to the point where larger jets can be introduced on to them.

He says the new routes are "primarily out of California" but also include Seattle and Portland.

On the subject of Seattle, he says the carrier is planning to use Paine Field as a reliever facility for the city's main airport, which is facing capacity issues.

"Usually when you're the largest carrier in your hub, you don't want to add new airports in the vicinity, but for us the growth of Seattle has changed that dynamic," he says.

Commenting on recent disruption at subsidiary Horizon Air, caused by a pilot shortage. Kirby says Alaska Airlines has taken fairly "strong" steps to return Horizon to normal operations.

"We had to take corrective action that was quite painful, we have exited some markets – we actually closed Colorado Springs as a destination. We've exited markets like LA-Medford, San Jose-Salt Lake City," he says.

Kirby puts the shortage down to an increase in attrition rates on the regional side, with pilots moving to mainline carriers. He says a significant number of those moving from Horizon have shifted to Alaska Airlines.

He describes this as an industry issue that has been "simmering below the surface", adding: "I guarantee you it's something looming on the horizon and [that] the industry needs to figure out."

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