Portland: A City Of Opportunities For Alaska Airlines

Portland International Airport (PDX) is a base for Alaska Airlines and the home airport for the largest city in Oregon. When also factoring in its regional operations, Alaska Airlines is the largest airline at the airport and serves more destinations than any other carrier in the city. However, there is still room for growth. Alaska Airlines envisions a growing commitment to the airport and giving it even more importance in its network, according to Brett Catlin, vice president of network and alliances at Alaska.

Alaska Airlines Portland
Alaska Airlines has some big plans for Portland. Photo: Portland International Airport

Alaska wants to add more flying to Portland

Not too long ago, Alaska Airlines announced two new routes out of Portland. One to Tampa and another to New Orleans. While both of those cater to mostly leisure travelers, the routes themselves are part of Alaska’s long-term plan in PDX and more than just pandemic-era additions.

When asked about the kind of opportunities the airline sees, Mr. Catlin discussed one of them as being organic, market-based growth in an interview with Simple Flying:

“There were big markets like a Tampa or New Orleans that we were talking about – Denver is a great example –  that we didn’t serve pre-pandemic. Now we’ve filled in all those gaps. There might be one or two more markets in the top 30 that are still missing like an Atlanta, but we’ll get there.

“It’s now that we have the breadth, the play, just like the rest of our network is to build up the depth. Tampa we’re gonna fly three or four days a week, that should be a daily service. service, no question. You think about Denver, we should be flying that three or four times a day instead of once a day, so our opportunity now is really about adding depth.”

Alaska Getty
Alaska Airlines views Portland as an important part of its network. Photo: Getty Images

Tampa and New Orleans were on the airline’s radar before the crisis hit, and they are part of the airline’s deliberate strategy targeting long-term opportunities and growth. In addition, Portland has seen a steady increase in new services from Alaska Airlines over the last few years, and many of those routes have stuck around and seen more flights per week or per day added to the schedule.

While Portland may sometimes be overshadowed by Seattle or San Francisco, or Los Angeles on the West Coast, it is still a major US city and a top destination for travelers in the United States. To be the premier airline at the airport, Alaska does need to offer a certain level of service to major destinations to tap into demand for flying to the city and continue to strengthen its West Coast presence.

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Opportunity number two: connections

The second opportunity in Portland for Alaska Airlines is the connecting sphere. As Mr. Catlin further stated:

“We have big north-south flows. You think about Portland to Orange County. Those guests should be connecting over Portland. We want to take some of the pressure off Seattle where we have really strong local demand and push that connectivity down to Portland where it makes sense.”

Alaska E175
The airline wants to add more connecting travel out of Portland. Photo: Getty Images

While Portland is a major originating and destination market, it is not at the same level as Seattle is. Seattle is the airline’s largest hub, and it has been the carrier’s largest base of operations and connections for years. However, while it is a major connecting hub, Alaska faces dual pressure.

Operating a major hub in a major city comes with multiple pressures. Not only do connections fill up planes, but a large volume of passengers is also originating in that city, and airlines need to offer service for both connecting and originating passengers.

Portland is still a large originating market, but it is certainly not as large as Seattle. So, Alaska Airlines can afford to direct some traffic, maybe from Spokane or Anchorage or even Everett to their final destination like Puerto Vallarta or Santa Barbara via a connection in Portland, and open up more seats for local travelers in Seattle.

Relieving some of that pressure in Seattle is key for Alaska Airlines. Seattle is only growing more competitive with Delta Air Lines’ hub in the city. While Alaska has a new partnership with American Airlines and has joined the oneworld alliance, it still has to rely on its extensive network out of the city to fend off against the competition. Opening up more seats there means being able to market to more area travelers.

Alaska Airlines Horizon Air passenger jet at Medford International Airport, Oregon
A significant amount of Alaska’s Portland flying is on regional aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

Where Alaska wants to go in Portland

Alaska Airlines sees a lot of opportunities, but its final goal is to be the premier airline serving the airport. Mr. Catlin phrased the goal as follows:

“We’re really bullish on Portland, but we also want to be thoughtful in how we build it relative to other network objectives, but our play is certainly to be at 50%+ market share player in Portland, to serve the top 30 markets, and to offer a really competitive product.”

Alaska Boeing 737
Alaska Airlines continues to fill in the gaps, but it still has some work to do. Photo: Getty Images

Portland, while it may be a major city for an airline like Delta, is not a major hub airport for any other airline. Most network carriers are flying to their hubs, and the airport has a relatively small ultra-low-cost carrier presence. This means huge potential for an airline like Alaska.

There are still some major cities missing from the airline’s network out of Portland. This includes Houston, Atlanta, St. Louis, Charlotte, Nashville, and other cities. Alaska can certainly grow its presence to include all or some of those destinations, but it will need to add new destinations to reach its goal, as schedule depth cannot do the work on its own.

Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics gives Alaska Airlines, when considering its regional operations under the Horizon Air brand as well, a roughly 33% market share. To get to that final 17%+, the airline will need to engage in deliberate and targeted long-term growth rather than rushing in with seasonal or one-time adds for pandemic-era travelers.

The airline can certainly get there, and its strategy and commitment to the city should reap the rewards. The only question now is how much time it takes for the airline to get there and its strategy for growing to reach those passengers.

What do you think about Alaska’s strategy in Portland? Where would you like to see the airline go in the city? Let us know in the comments!