Now that Alaska Airlines owns Virgin America, it has targeted the Bay Area for “the single largest new market announcement” in its history, the company said Thursday. Will this mean lower fares? Probably not…
Alaska/Virgin plans to add service on 13 new routes from San Francisco and San Jose in late summer and fall of this year.
All the mainline flights on Alaska’s new routes will use aircraft from the “A320 family,” which is the type used by Virgin America. Alaska has an all-Boeing mainline fleet. New San Jose flights and a few from SFO will use smaller Embraer E175s.
It’s interesting that Alaska didn’t say the routes would be operated by Virgin America – just that they will be flown by A320 family aircraft- something that could be telling regarding the fate of the Virgin brand. Alaska executives have been feverishly studying what to do about the Virgin America brand, and they are expected to decide and announce something by the end of this month ahead of its annual investors meeting.
New mainline daily service coming from Alaska (and the starting dates) include flights from San Francisco to Philadelphia (August 31), New Orleans (September 21), Nashville (September 5), Indianapolis (September 26), Raleigh-Durham (October 19), Baltimore-Washington (October 16), and Kona, Hawaii (December 14).
The airline will deploy E175s for new daily flights from SFO to Albuquerque and Kansas City, both starting September 18.
Where are all those new flights going to fit at SFO’s limited number of gates? “The A320 flights will be operated by Virgin in Terminal 2, and we’re adding a fifteenth gate to support this. (Gate 50 will expand to be an A/B gate.) Flights operated in Embraer E175s will be operated by Alaska Air in their current location in the International Terminal,” said SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel, adding, “We are in discussions about once they begin operating under a single certificate, but these gate plans have yet to be finalized.”
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At Mineta San Jose, Alaska will begin new daily E175 flights to Austin and Tucson on August 28, and four flights a day to Los Angeles International beginning September 20. (Click on the link above to see flight times for all the new routes.)
The new markets are in addition to Alaska’s previously announced new service from the Bay Area coming in the months ahead, including San Jose-Newark (starting March 12), San Jose-Burbank (starting March 16 three times a day), and San Francisco service to Orlando, Orange County, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Mexico City.
Fares: We do not expect Alaska’s push into the Bay Area will result in lower fares– it’s not in this game to be a discounter. Instead, it will likely focus on service and amenities to attract a larger share of the lucrative business travel market. Even though it has the last remaining mileage based frequent flyer program, Alaska will likely have a big challenge convincing high mileage United Mileage Plus members to make the switch. One of the first steps in doing that is providing flights to cities where business travelers need to go. It will be interesting to see what else they do to woo frequent travelers.
For the Bay Area, “Our strategy is to use the same philosophy that’s worked well for us in our Pacific Northwest hubs, which is to offer convenient, nonstop flights to the places guests fly to most,” said Alaska executive vp Andrew Harrison.
Sadly missing from the new line up: SFO-Atlanta, a key business route locked up by Delta and United which could use a competitive bump from the new Alaska Airlines. Another miss for business travelers: SFO-Phoenix, largely dominated by American and Southwest.
To hype the announcement, Alaska has kicked off a social media promotion that will offer “destination-inspired food items” and free flights to Bay Area residents. “Travelers who tweet the airlines at @AlaskaAir and @VirginAmerica using the hashtag #MostWestCoast and with an airplane emoji will score the chance to have a destination-specific treat (think BBQ for Nashville and beignets for New Orleans) delivered within a few hours to their front door,” Alaska said, and some will win a free flight to one of the new destinations.
Are you more inclined to fly Alaska Airlines these days? Why or why not? Please leave your comments below.