It's not like Delta Air Lines to play the underdog. As a global network carrier, Delta has hubs in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Tokyo. Through its affiliations with KLM and Air France, they have hubs in Amsterdam and Paris. Through its ownership in Virgin Atlantic, Delta also enjoys hub status at London's Heathrow Airport, Europe's mostpopular port of entry.
And then there's Seattle. Over the past two years, Delta has bucked up against its own partner, Alaska Airlines, the largest airline at Sea-Tac. Delta has deployed assets and set up new routes to make Seattle an international gateway, elbowing its way in to plant its flag on routes previously served exclusively by Alaska Airlines. When the build-out began, Alaska Air was a rock-solid partner with Delta: code-share, mileage plan tie-in, reciprocal upgrades for frequent flyers — the works.
But along the way, relations between the two airlines soured. First, Delta started adding new flights to Seattle from popular Southwest destinations like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Then Alaska Airlines launched a new "mini-hub" on Delta's turf in Salt Lake with service to seven cities. Then Delta announced new service to Juneau and Fairbanks from Seattle. Then Alaska Airlines launched service to popular Delta cities including Tampa, New Orleans and Detroit.
Earlier this year, Delta loaded up their summertime flights for 2015 from Fairbanks to Seattle and from Juneau to Seattle, starting at $250 round-trip. Without competitive pressure, the prevailing rates on Alaska Airlines started around $574 round-trip from Juneau and $689 round-trip from Fairbanks. Delta is the underdog, with just one flight each day. But even one flight can force the incumbent carrier (Alaska Airlines) to drop the fare and match the offer.
This week, Delta announced that it would fly once each day to both Ketchikan and Sitka. Delta's regional partner SkyWest will operate a 65-seat CRJ-700 aircraft on the routes. Interestingly, SkyWest also operates regional jets for Alaska Airlines, but not on these routes.
From Sitka to Seattle, Delta's flight will depart at 6:40 a.m., arriving in time to connect with afternoon flights at 9:50 a.m. The return flight from Seattle to Sitka leaves at 7:10 p.m., arriving at 8:30 p.m.
From Ketchikan to Seattle, the Delta flight will leave at 2:15 p.m., arriving at 5:05 p.m. The return flight departs at 12:45 p.m. from Sea-Tac, arriving in Ketchikan at 1:40 p.m.
While fares were not announced, it's pretty obvious there's nowhere for them to go but down. Travelers can start booking tickets on Nov. 23, according to a Delta press release.
With the addition of Ketchikan and Sitka, Delta will now offer summertime service to the top five destinations in the state. Delta offers year-round service from Anchorage to Seattle. The flights from Fairbanks and Juneau to Seattle start on May 29. The Ketchikan and Sitka flights start a little earlier, on May 15.
"The state of Alaska is an important element to our hub in Seattle," said Mike Madeiros, Delta's vice president for Seattle. "Our job is to look where the opportunity is and to find an airplane that can match the demand. And from a marketing perspective, we aim to stimulate traffic and to grow a base of loyal customers," he said.
Just in case you missed that, "stimulating traffic" is airline-speak for dropping fares.
In addition to the new Alaska service, Delta is adding service to Denver, Boise and Sacramento. By next summer, Delta will offer 120 peak-day departures to 35 destinations, including Maui, Calgary, Spokane, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Tucson and Puerto Vallarta. Currently, Delta is looking for more space at Sea-Tac. "We're looking for 30 gates at Sea-Tac," said Madeiros, "and that's going to take a while."
The real hub story for Delta in Seattle, though, is its trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic schedule. Right now, Delta is the only carrier to offer nonstop service from Seattle to Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo's Haneda Airport.
Additionally, Delta offers nonstop service from Seattle to London's Heathrow Airport, Beijing and Tokyo's Narita Airport.
Travelers shopping for the best fares will see that both Alaska and Delta charge for checked baggage. Alaska's Club 49 program, open to all Alaska residents, offers two free checked bags. Last summer, Delta offered a similar program offering two checked bags. Madeiros would not speculate whether the program will be revived in the summer, only that Delta "has different promotions in different markets." Also, both Delta and Alaska offered double mileage bonuses between Alaska and Seattle. I would be surprised if Delta did not offer that again, at least in the new Ketchikan-Seattle or Sitka-Seattle flights.
Between Anchorage and Seattle, Delta and Alaska have been trading barbs this fall. Currently, Delta offers a $325 round-trip rate in early December while Alaska offers tickets for as little as $339 round-trip. Starting in January, both Alaska and Delta are happy to let the fare float up to $427 round-trip. It's JetBlue, which starts service on May 16, that is the real disrupter in the market, with fares as low as $197 round-trip.
Despite the oh-so-public sparring between Delta and Alaska, Madeiros puts on a brave face regarding the partnership between the two airlines. "The relationship remains strong. We will continue to code-share on a variety of flights. We believe this partnership is an important part of our hub development. After all, when you decide you want to create a hub, it's natural that you create some competition along the way," he said.
And although Alaska Airlines has the lion's share of the air service between Alaska and the Lower 49, Delta has made it clear that it's moved in. In fact, the carrier has taken off its coat and indicated that it plans to stay awhile. And that means lower fares for travelers.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant. Contact him via his travel blog at alaskatravelgram.com.