Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Airline response to cruise ship cuts

Airlines boost flights to Alaska this summer

Experts say travelers may get better deals.

An unexpected surge in new commercial flights scheduled for Alaska this summer may trigger new competition among airlines and cheaper tickets to some major Lower 48 cities, travel industry experts say.

Friendlier skies
New round-trip nonstop flights coming this summer:

• Anchorage-Chicago, United Airlines, May 15-Aug. 30

• Anchorage-San Francisco, United, June 9-Aug. 30

• Anchorage-Denver, United, June 10-Aug. 30

• Anchorage-Portland, Continental, June 9-Sept. 6

• Anchorage-Philadelphia, US Airways, June 1-Sept. 7

• Fairbanks-Denver, Frontier Airlines, May 14-Sept 12

• Fairbanks-Salt Lake City, Delta Airlines, June 25; end date not available

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Continental, United and US Airways all plan to add daily nonstop service this summer between Anchorage and Portland, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia. No new flights have been announced between Anchorage and Seattle, a major connection hub for Alaskans.

It's too early to say how much new seat capacity will be added at the Anchorage international airport -- Alaska Airlines won't announce its summer schedule until late March -- but for now, the new traffic from other airlines is set to add more than 930 seats per day.

Fairbanks is also expecting a bump in air traffic this summer: It will receive additional nonstop flights, four to five days per week, going round-trip to Denver and Salt Lake City.

Airlines are expanding their service to Alaska at an interesting moment -- on the tail of a global recession that last year kept thousands of independent travelers from visiting Alaska, and on the cusp of cruise-industry cuts that mean thousands fewer cruise passengers will fly to and from Alaska this year.

Roughly 120,000 fewer cruise passengers are expected to arrive or depart from the Anchorage or Fairbanks airports due to the pullout of two large cruise ships that sailed the Gulf of Alaska route last year. That equates to three planes a day, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

Even if tens of thousands more independent travelers visit this summer, they won't fill the seats emptied of cruise passengers, said Ron Peck, the ATIA president.

On the other hand, the new flights could be a boon for Alaskans during the summer.

"The one thing I'm certain of is that (Alaska) air fares will be lower this year," said Mark Eliason, president of USTravel, an Anchorage-based travel agency.

Scott McMurren, an Anchorage travel industry marketing consultant, said Alaskans might see "fare-related fireworks" as the May and June inaugural dates of the new flights approach.



The airlines announced their new flights in glowing press releases over the last couple of months.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines, a low-cost carrier that already offers nonstop service between Denver and Anchorage, touted its new nonstop flight to Fairbanks, saying its customers will now have "the ability to travel to two breathtaking destinations in the great state of Alaska."

US Airways said it "could not be more excited to bring Alaska to our Philadelphia hub," and boasted that its new flight will be the only nonstop airline service to Alaska from the northeastern United States.

The biggest increase in flights comes from United Airlines, which withdrew from Alaska last year but plans to come back with bigger planes. It is taking on several markets already served by Alaska Airlines -- Chicago, San Francisco and Denver.

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the airline is "seeing an interest among our customers to go to Anchorage in the summer season, more so than we've previously seen ... we've seen a significant uptick this summer."

United's decision to leave Alaska in 2009 "was just a reflection of the economic situation at the time," Urbanksi said.


Industry experts say some other factors may have driven the airlines' decisions.

McMurren said the airlines think they will be able to lure additional travelers to Alaska using their expanding frequent-flier base. United, US Airways, Continental and many others, including Japan-based All Nippon Airways and Germany-based Lufthansa Airlines, are all part of the same global frequent-flier network, called Star Alliance.

"The whole deal is these carriers think they can make a dent based on their frequent mileage network," he said.

Eliason has another angle.

"Because there has been less competition and the capacity, if anything, has shrunk, the yields were high here last year," he said.

"(The airlines) think, 'Gee, we can make money.' "

But, "the piece that these airlines didn't factor in was the (120,000) cruise passengers that are gone," Eliason said.

He predicted that Alaska Airlines will match whatever prices the other airlines offer.


Alaska Airlines declined to discuss its flight plans for Anchorage this summer or how big an impact it expects from the cruise-ship cutbacks. The company won't discuss such details until it announces its flight schedule in March, spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.

She noted that the airline added a second flight between Anchorage and Chicago within the last year.

An Anchorage airport spokeswoman said Thursday the airport is "cautiously optimistic" about the number of people who will deplane this summer.

Last year's passenger counts dropped by a sizable amount. About 985,000 people deplaned in Anchorage last summer, down nearly 12 percent from the prior year, airport statistics show.

"It's fascinating, I guess, to have so many airlines turn their attention to Alaska," said David Kasser, vice president of tourism, development and sales for the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"It's ironic that we are getting more air traffic when we are getting less (ship) capacity. It's quite possible that people are changing the way they are traveling, and doing more independent trips, but that hasn't been the case in many years," he said.

Instead, Kasser said, the past increases in Alaska visitation have come from cruise tours.

Without an increase in independent travelers this year, the state will see its fewest tourists since 2005, said Peck of the ATIA.

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