Alaska Airlines dominant at Seattle but LCC share is growing; Hainan starts Beijing service

The Seattle area is home to several legendary brands such as Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks as well as being the location for Frasier. The area’s main airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), is one of the top 20 in the United States and home to Alaska Airlines and its subsidiary Horizon Air. So far in 2008 its growth of 7.6% has been considerably better than most other major US airports.

Image: Hainan Airlines in China
“Frasier” or “Cheers!”? Chen Feng, chairman of HNA Group, the parent company of Hainan Airlines in China; Washington State Govenor Chris Gregoire, and Liu Guang Yuan minister of the embassy of the People’s Republic of China toast the new non stop Seattle-Beijing route last month.

Post ‘9/11′ traffic fell by around 5% and was virtually flat in 2002 and 2003 in a period which mirrors the slump in the early 80s. But since then SEA has grown steadily to pass the 30 million mark for the first time in 2007.

Chart: Seattle-Tacoma airport seasonality
Source: Port Of Seattle
Image: US Comedy Frasier
The ordinary citizens of Seattle have an unsurprising strong taste for international travel. Besides the new Beijing service recent new routes include Calgary, Frankfurt, Mexico, Paris, and London (Heathrow).

The airport’s seasonality profile is very consistent with demand peaking in July and August and is at its lowest in January and February. The peak to off-peak ratio is around 1.6 (August to February).

Home of Alaska Airlines

Image: Alaska Airlines / Horizon Air planes on a runway SEA’s biggest operator is Alaska Airlines, which along with its regional subsidiary Horizon Air, carried almost half of all passengers in 2007. Horizon’s traffic grew by 15% while that of Alaska Airlines grew by just 1.2%. Third ranked Southwest grew by 3.6% having decided not to pursue the idea of relocating all its services to Boeing Field. The six US ‘legacy’ airlines fill the next six ranking positions. The fastest growing airline at SEA in 2007 was Hawaiian Airlines whose passenger numbers increased by 52%.

Chart: Top 12 airlines at SEA
Source: Port Of Seattle

Based on aircraft movements the most popular domestic regions were the Bay Area of California, Los Angeles, Portland, Spokane and Chicago. Alaska (combined with Horizon) offers at least 100 weekly departures on several routes from SEA. Topping the list is Portland (with 172 flights) followed by Anchorage (139), Spokane (111) and Los Angeles (100). Several routes have three or more carriers serving them.

Route AL Airlines (weekly departures)
Denver (DEN) 4 Alaska (27), Frontier (35), Southwest (28), United (49)
Los Angeles (LAX) 4 Alaska (100), Delta (27), United (28), Virgin America (27)
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) 3 Alaska (14), American (34), United (44)
Honolulu (HNL) 3 Alaska (7), Hawaiian (7), Northwest (14)
Las Vegas (LAS) 3 Alaska (54), Southwest (27), US Airways (21)
New York (JFK) 3 American (7), Delta (21), JetBlue (14)
Phoenix (PHX) 3 Alaska (42), Southwest (22), US Airways (35)
San Francisco (SFO) 3 Alaska (67), United (55), Virgin America (34)
Spokane (GEG) 3 Alaska (111), Southwest (25), United (28)
Source: OAG Max Online for July 2008

All this healthy competition ensures that air fares from Sea-Tac on short-haul routes remain well below the national average, and apart from in Q3 last year overall fares across all routes were just below the national average when adjusted for sector length.

Image: Starbucks Coffee Shop
Lots of consumer choice! One supplier may have cornered the market in hot beverages for Seattle airport customers, but healthy competition on short-haul routes ensures air fares from Sea-Tac remain well below the national average. (To be fair there’s also loads of choice for coffee; Seattlites wouldn’t have it any other way.)
Period Fare Premium
All Markets
Fare Premium
Fare Premium
2007 Q1 -2% -7% -1%
2007 Q2 -2% -13% 0%
2007 Q3 1% -10% 4%
2007 Q4 -3.5% -15.3% -0.5%
Source: US DOT Office of Aviation Analysis

New routes to China, France, Germany, Mexico and UK

In 2007 international traffic grew twice as fast as domestic traffic. On international routes the leading airlines were Horizon Airlines, Northwest, Alaska Airlines, British Airways and EVA Air. Apart from several routes to nearby Canada there are also international flights to China, Japan (Northwest and United to Narita), Korea (Asiana and Korean from Seoul), Mexico and Taiwan (China Airlines and EVA Air), as well as transatlantic services to Amsterdam (Northwest), Paris CDG (Air France), Copenhagen (SAS), Frankfurt (Lufthansa) and London Heathrow (British Airways and Northwest).

Chart: Seattle-Tacoma airport traffic 1966-2007
Source: Port Of Seattle
Image: Sea-Tac third runway due to begin operation November 2008
A CAD rendering of Sea-Tac’s airfield shows the third runway, which is scheduled to begin operations in November of 2008. The new runway is expected to help Sea-Tac sharply reduce weather-affected delays. Currently, only one of the existing two runways can be used in low cloud, which occurs 44% of the time.

The route to Beijing is served by Hainan Airlines which began operating the route four-times weekly on 9 June. Northwest is planning to join them in the market next March. Several other international routes are relatively new including Air Canada’s services to Calgary, Lufthansa’s Frankfurt service, AeroMexico to Mexico, Air France to Paris and Northwest to Heathrow.

New domestic routes in the last 12 months have included JetBlue to Long Beach and San Diego, AirTran to Baltimore/Washington and Milwaukee, Alaska Airlines to Honolulu, Southwest to Denver and Virgin America to Los Angeles and San Francisco. As a result LCCs now have an estimated 16% share of scheduled seat capacity.

Before the end of 2008, Alaska Airlines intends to start new services to Minneapolis/St Paul (twice daily from 26 October and in direct competition with Northwest and Sun Country Airlines) and Kona in Hawaii (daily from 17 November).


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