What’s a new week without news of another would-be startup airline? Today’s contender is Alaska-based Northern Pacific Airways. The airline aims to put Anchorage back on the map for travelers, offering flights between mainland United States and Asia via its Alaska hub.
As a start-up airline strategy, it isn’t that bonkers. It is a replica of what Icelandair does – offering flights between the United States and Europe via Reykjavík. Icelandair makes its mark on its patch of the North Atlantic, successfully offering a niche alternative to direct transatlantic flights. Northern Pacific Airways might be the Northern Pacific version of Icelandair.
So far, so good, but does Anchorage have the lure of Reykjavík? Northern Pacific’s CEO Rob McKinney thinks so. Like Iceland, McKinney believes lots of people want to visit Alaska. But the expense, remoteness, and access issues are barriers. The way McKinney sees it, Northern Pacific Airways can help overcome those barriers and help open up Alaska.
Northern Pacific Airways concept launch on the weekend
The idea of Northern Pacific Airways isn’t entirely new. Look online and you’ll see it has been bouncing around for a few months. But according to Yahoo News, the formal launch of the airline happened on the weekend. According to PaxEx Aero, Corvus Airlines (better known as Ravn Alaska and also helmed by Rob McKinney) registered the trade names Northern Pacific, Northern Pacific Airways, and Northern Pacific Airways with the Department of Transport last month.
“Alaska is a unique place that presents all kinds of challenges,” Yahoo quotes McKinney saying at the launch. He says those challenges can intimidate outsiders and deter airline operators. “We’re from here, this is where we operate. This is our home.”
Northern Pacific is eyeing flights to Japan and South Korea in one direction. Across the United States, a number of cities are under consideration. Flights would operate via Northern Pacific’s home port of Anchorage. While the flights will be timed to allow for easy connections, ideally Rob McKinney would like you to stop over for a few days and see the sights – again the Icelandair model.
“The goal is to encourage people to spend a day or two here and go salmon fishing, or go ride a sled dog on a glacier, or just all kinds of things you can only do here in Alaska,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that McKinney’s local intrastate Alaskan airline Ravn Alaska is on hand to fly them out to the glacier.
Northern Pacific eyes Boeing 757
But right now, like many startup airlines, Northern Pacific is still on the drawing board. Northern Pacific needs planes and it needs a beefed-up air operators certificate. It probably also needs finance – and lots of it.
Would be sibling airline Ravn Alaska operates a small fleet of De Havilland Canada DHC-8s, better known as Dash 8s. They won’t cut it for a flight to Seoul. McKinney is eyeing a fleet of Boeing 757 aircraft (again, the Icelandair model).
There are Boeing 757s on the second-hand market, available either for purchase or lease. But many are already converted or in the process of being converted to freighters. That somewhat limits supply. Supply shortages often see higher asking prices.
The 757 also has some range limitations. The 757-200 can fly 3,900 nautical miles before refueling. That covers North America, North Asia, Russia, and much of Western Europe. But South Asia and Southeast Asia are beyond the plane’s range. The range of the 757-300 is even less, but far fewer of this aircraft type were manufactured.
That explains McKinney’s pick of Japan and South Korea (both in North Asia) as initial Asian destinations. But with much of Asia out of reach, there is a huge market left untapped if the 757 strategy is pursued.
In any case, the North Pacific CEO appears to be a Boeing boy – perhaps understandable given his United States origins. On the weekend, McKinney said the “allure of the Boeing type” was overwhelming.
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Rob McKinney lays out his plans in a YouTube clip to Ravn employees
In June, PaxEx Aero’s Seth Miller reported on a private YouTube video posted by Rob McKinney to employees. In that video, McKinney said he wanted to use the empty north terminal at Anchorage International and operate a low-cost carrier model using narrow-body jets, specifically 757s.
“Our plan is to add Boeing‘s ETOPS and international operations to the Ravn certificate so that we can serve on the Asia side Tokyo and Seoul initially and then adding Osaka later. And on the US side we are looking at Orlando; Newark; Las Vegas; Ontario, CA; and Oakland, CA. And that’s just to get us going,” the PaxEx report quotes the transcript saying.
“We’re looking to acquire probably around ten aircraft, and this new operation will be called Northern Pacific Airways.
“I want to reassure you that we are really digging into these numbers and are very certain of the value that we’re going to be able to bring to the company. We’re also certain we can get this stood up and running without acquiring an excessive amount of debt like Ravn used to have.”
As Seth Miller notes, this is all easier said than done. The long-haul low-cost model is a difficult nut to crack. Many airlines have tried to do so and failed, notably Norwegian recently. Icelandair, while not on par with Singapore Airlines or Qatar when it comes to inflight services, is also no bare-bones operator when it comes to its inflight product.
Will Ravn’s bankruptcy shadow Northern Pacific Airways?
The lack of specific details regarding financing and the shadow of Ravn’s recent bankruptcy may also hover over the startup. In the wake of the 2020 travel downturn, Ravn filed for Chapter 11 protection in April 2020, reportedly unable to even meet payroll expenses. The airline went under with debts of over US$90 million.
Rob McKinney was part of a three-man team who later bought Ravn, scaled it down, and got it back in the air by the end of 2020. He is described as a “veteran regional airline executive.”
There has been some slight rebranding of the RavnAir Alaska name to Ravn Alaska. McKinney wasn’t at Ravn went it went into administration. He and his team get credit for pulling the airline out of administration. But whether he can take the next step and transition from a regional player to a low-cost long-haul operator will be worth watching.
On the weekend, Rob McKinney said he’d like to have Northern Pacific Airways up and flying by next summer.