Delta and Alaska fighting for Seattle’s gateway to Asia

Delta’s inaugural flight to Hong Kong from Sea-Tac Airport in June. (Photo by Don Wilson/Port of Seattle)
Delta’s inaugural flight to Hong Kong from Sea-Tac Airport in June. (Photo by Don Wilson/Port of Seattle)

By the end of this year, Delta officials say Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will see the addition of 96 flights to 33 destinations, including Seoul, Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong, as well as many domestic flights.

Delta and Alaska Airlines are both bidding for more market share, resulting in overlapping flights on routes to Anchorage, San Francisco, and other destinations. Already the number of seats offered by Delta has more than quadrupled since last year, up from 700 to 3,200. Most industry analysts see this as an indication that Delta wants to make Seattle as its new hub.

As a smaller airline, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is finding its presence challenged as the main gateway to Alaska from the lower 48 mainland states, as well as its position as the airline with the greatest number of domestic departures from Seattle.

Delta considers Seattle an underserved market with “room to grow,” according to spokesman Anthony Black. Seattle’s strategic location as the city with shortest distance and fastest flight away from Asia, also makes it an ideal gateway to the Pacific, he said.

The Puget Sound Business Journal reports that Alaska is increasing service by 11 percent this year, while Delta is adding additional flights to domestic destinations, including Anchorage. According to Black, Delta currently ranks second to Alaska in terms of number of domestic departures and operates more transoceanic flights from Seattle than all other carriers combined.

But what does all this mean for passengers? While it certainly means travelers can find more flight options to Asia without having to go to Los Angeles or San Francisco first, it doesn’t necessarily mean those flights will be cheaper.

“It’ll be good news for business travelers who care more about frequent connections than price,” said travel writer Tim Leffel. But he warns that the change could lead to an increase in fares. “It’ll be bad news for everyone else because fares invariably go up and stay up in hub cities. The only time that doesn’t happen is if there’s a powerful budget airline running lots of flights out of the same airport — which is rare.”

But Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst, said both Alaska and Delta should ultimately benefit from any new Delta international service despite “some friction” between the two airlines over competitive domestic service.

“From the standpoint that it is unlikely Alaska would initiate similar international service on its own, Delta’s move should be welcomed by Seattle and Pacific Northwest area travelers,” said Mann.

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