Airlines' Seattle turf war heats up with American, Alaska expansion–and tech workers are the prize

Key Points
  • The American-Alaska partnership seeks bigger share of corporate travelers from giants like Amazon and Microsoft.
  • Delta had expanded aggressively in Seattle over the last decade, becoming one of the airlines most profitable hubs.
  • The agreement comes months after Delta surprised by teaming up with American's longtime partner carrier LATAM.
An American Airlines plane at left, leaves a gate area near an Alaska Airlines plane, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren | AP

Airlines are stepping up their battle over Seattle, where the spoils are high-spending corporate travelers from technology giants like Amazon and Microsoft and millions of other passengers at one of the country's fastest-growing airports.

The latest shot fired in the turf war came last week when American Airlines and Alaska Airlines announced a plan to expand their partnership to include American's international flights from the West Coast, just weeks before reciprocal frequent-flyer benefits were set to be scaled back at the end of February.

That agreement between Seattle's hometown airline and international giant American formed after Delta spent years beefing up service from Seattle, which is one of its most profitable hubs. The surprise agreement also came after Delta swooped in last September with plans to buy a 20% stake in American's longtime partner LATAM, a move that would increase Delta's presence in American's hub in Miami.

The American-Alaska deal "can be seen as a competitive reply to Delta's very bold, recent incursion onto American's Miami turf," said Craig Jenks, founding president of Airline/Aircraft Projects, a New York aviation consulting firm.

Going abroad

The unusual Alaska-American agreement would allow Alaska to book its travelers on American's flights abroad from the West Coast. In its announcement, American unveiled plans to fly nonstop from Seattle to technology hub Bangalore, India, starting in October. Bangalore is one of Amazon's top three business-travel markets, said Brett Catlin, Alaska's head of network planning and alliances. The new service would launch almost a decade after American ended its flights to India.

"India is a grossly under-served market, despite the number of businesses with a major presence in both India and the West Coast," Vasu Raja, American's senior vice president for network strategy, said in a news release. "By adding Seattle to Bangalore, we're giving customers from more than 70 U.S. cities access to India in one stop or less — versus the two, three or four stops they'd have to make to get there in the past." American also announced a flight between Seattle and London Heathrow, starting in March 2021, adding to flights on the route that American's trans-Atlantic partner British Airways offers from Seattle.

Prized growth

Passenger boardings at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport surged 44% from 2013 through 2018, more than double the clip of growth nationally, according to U.S. Transportation Department data. By 2018 — the most recent full year of Transportation Department data — the airport ranked eighth for boardings, up from 15th five years earlier.

The new agreement increases the competition between Alaska, which dominates the airport, and Delta, its closest rival there. It could also help Alaska, which doesn't fly internationally beyond North America, expand abroad.

Delta has expanded aggressively in Seattle in recent years, growing its available seat miles, a measure of capacity, by nearly 50% from 2014 to 2018, according to consulting firm ICF. Marking its five-year anniversary of the hub last June, Delta said its peak-day departures from Seattle more than doubled to 174 last year from 76.

Alaska's capacity grew 41% in the five years ending in 2018, according to ICF data. The carrier still dominates its home airport with a 54% share of seats in Seattle, while Delta ranks second with 24% and American ranks fifth with 6% of seats, according to estimates from Credit Suisse airline analyst Jose Caiado. Delta, however, dominates internationally, with 29% of the seats, on international Seattle flights outside of North America, including nonstops to China, South Korea and Japan.

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