American Airlines has long had a meager presence on the West Coast. Yes, there’s a hub at LAX, but for people who actually live on the West Coast and want to travel on the West Coast — rather than fly east, west, or south — most flights were served by their partner, Alaska Airlines. American doesn’t even offer much service to Hawaii, and it’s only recently started to add more international routes to Asia and Oceania (I’m already booked on the new LAX-Haneda route that begins February 11).
More change is coming for domestic travelers. Yesterday American made a big announcement of 12 new routes from Los Angeles. Many of the flights will be seasonal or just once-daily service to cities in the Rockies and Midwest. That’s good as far as making fewer connections if you’re an LA traveler.
What stands out are the five daily flights to Seattle, three daily flights to Portland, and one daily flight to Anchorage. These are all routes between Alaska Airlines hubs, and in the Pacific Northwest air travel is almost synonymous with Alaska Airlines, whose network is much stronger in areas where American is weaker. For example, American operates at only two, maybe three gates in Seattle and from one of the terminal’s most inconvenient concourses. The Chili’s across from these gates used to close at 2 PM because there were so few people.
So what gives? First, give American credit for trying to establish its own “hometown airline” credibility — even though its Dallas headquarters would me the more accurate choice. It has to share Los Angeles with a partner (Alaska) in addition to United Airlines, but adding more service on its own planes will the travel experience more seamless. For elites it also provides better recognition of benefits. Alaska Airlines doesn’t provide upgrades to American Airlines customers, and mixed carrier itineraries can be complicated when flights change or get cancelled.
But we’re seeing a lot more competition for Alaska’s dominance. First Delta, then American. Two of Alaska’s partners are trying to steal traffic. The difference is that American is expanding at an existing hub in LAX, which is also a hub for Alaska but not exactly the heart of the operation. Meanwhile Delta is striking at Alaska’s headquarters in Seattle and creating a new hub.
I think the competition with Delta has been healthy for Alaska, encouraging it to expand its reach to new cities. Where Delta competes, Alaska has sometimes reduced service and sent its planes elsewhere. But there are limits to how far it can go before it gives Delta the upper hand. American might be seen as a friendlier competitor. Alaska can continue shifting its capacity to new markets while making sure they share the coastal traffic — fairly — with American.
Furthermore, Alaska and Delta have both said (perhaps through gritted teeth, but with some truth) that Seattle is a booming market that deserves more service that was previously offered. There’s an opportunity for American to share a piece of that pie.