Alaska, Delta square off at Sea-Tac

When Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines merged with Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines six years ago, it inherited a network of Asian routes with a hub at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

HISTORY: Northwest’s Asian presence was Delta’s first significant doorway to the burgeoning U.S.-Asia market. Just how Delta would manage and grow that market was an unknown at the time of the merger. Within three years, Delta’s game plan began emerging.

That plan included a pivotal role for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. And, as it developed further, Delta’s plans became a challenge for that airport’s dominant carrier, SeaTac-based Alaska Airlines.

STRATEGY: Delta first began beefing up its international schedules from Sea-Tac with nonstop flights to major Asian and European destinations such as Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai in Asia and London, Amsterdam and Paris in Europe from Sea-Tac. Initially Delta enlisted Alaska as an ally in providing domestic flights to and from Sea-Tac to feed its international routes.

Then in 2013, Delta began building its own domestic network from Sea-Tac, which was becoming a major West Coast hub for Delta.

Delta began launching new routes to Sea-Tac. Many of those routes had been dominated by Alaska for years. Delta, for instance, began connecting Sea-Tac with San Francisco, with Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. Then it entered what had been Alaska monopoly or near-monopoly territory in Alaska with flights to Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka and Fairbanks. Delta kept adding more flights, announcing nonstops to traditional Alaska vacation spots such as Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico and to Kona in Hawaii.

Alaska, which throughout Delta’s ramp up of flights to and from Sea-Tac has maintained a code-sharing partnership with Delta, began competing more vigorously with Delta at the larger airlines’ hubs including Salt Lake City, Detroit and New York. In addition, Alaska added a score of new nonstop routes to its Sea-Tac network, including nonstops to New Orleans, Tampa, Baltimore and Albuquerque that Sea-Tac travelers might have formerly reached by flying through a Delta hub airport.

RESULTS: The numbers tell the story. By late this year, Delta will have 126 peak day departures from Sea-Tac, up from 85 in 2014. Last year, Delta and its contract carrier, Skywest, carried 5.44 million passengers from Sea-Tac. That’s 14.5 percent of passengers the airport handled in 2014. That puts Delta in second place among Sea-Tac airlines.

Alaska, meanwhile, has maintained its leadership in market share at the airport. Along with its sister airline Horizon Air and contract carrier SkyWest, Alaska flew 19.314 million passengers from Sea-Tac last year. That gave Alaska and its affiliates a 51.5 percent market share at the airport. Alaska has added significantly to its Sea-Tac schedule in the last three years. The airline now has 265 average daily departures from the airport. In 2013, Alaska added four new cities to its route map from Sea-Tac. Last year, the airline began flying to six new cities. So far in 2015, the airline has announced four new cities and added more flights on 24 existing routes.