Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
How the NFC champs got caught up in a tussle over West Coast airline market share.
It’s a twist on the classic David versus Goliath tale: A younger, scrappier crew of upstarts from an unlikely city face off against an older squad of perennial champions, one that’s already taken over a region and now wants the world. No, we’re not talking Seahawks and Patriots, Brady and Wilson. This is Alaska versus Delta, in a corporate airline dogfight for the soul of one football-loving Pacific Northwestern city.
Alaska Airlines has long been a hometown hero in Seattle. Founded in 1944 and based in the airport-adjacent suburb of SeaTac, the airline has made being the seventh-largest domestic airline look like a downright local—and shockingly personable—affair. A 2014 J.D. Power and Associates survey showed that the carrier had the best customer satisfaction rates among traditional airlines—for the seventh year in a row. And Alaska, which flies to 95 mostly domestic destinations, has always proudly touted its West Coast roots. One must look no further than their in-flight meal service to see it: Alaska Airlines serves Alaskan, Californian and Pacific Northwestern microbrews and wines, and their menu was crafted by Seattle chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas. Forbes reports that roughly 60 percent of Alaska passengers either embarked or disembarked from the Seattle airport in 2013, making it the most important airport for the domestic carrier.
“Alaska in particular has a fiercely loyal following in Seattle,” says Brett Snyder, who runs an air travel assistance business and has worked in and written on the industry for 20 years. “Seattle is like that with a lot of brands, and Alaska is one of those brands that they’ve kind of grabbed onto.”
And yet, when the Seattle Seahawks, the pride of the Emerald City and reigning NFL champions, boarded a hulking airliner to Glendale, Arizona, for Super Bowl XLIX this week, Alaska Airlines was nowhere to be seen. That's partially because Alaska does not operate a plane large enough to carry the team, and its equipment, and its staff to the Super Bowl. But it's also because Delta, the Atlanta-based world’s largest airline, has been the official airline partner of the Seattle Seahawks since September 2013. That arrangement has lead to some sweet, football-related photo-ops, like this shot of Seattle head coach and savior Pete Carroll alighting from a Delta airliner in Arizona this week:
Or this photo of a jubilant Delta flight attendant waving the iconic “12th man” banner as the Seahawks returned from their victory in Super Bowl XLVIII last year:
Not to be outdone, Alaska signed star quarterback and All Around Good Guy Russell Wilson as their "Chief Football Officer" (not CEO, not COO, but CFO) in December 2013:
Customers wearing Wilson jerseys while traveling now get priority boarding on flights out of Seattle. The company says it will donate $3,000 to Wilson's favorite charity for every Seahawks touchdown scored. It also has a celebratory plane:
What seems like a snoozy PR battle cuts deeper. The background: Just a few years ago, Alaska and Delta had one of the friendliest partnerships in the airline industry. Delta had less of a West Coast presence, so the airline had a code-share agreement with the Alaska: The larger company would allow its passengers to buy seats on Alaska flights through its own ticketing system, giving customers more options and Alaska more business, particularly among those who would later be connecting to Delta's international flights. Fliers could also share frequent flier miles between the two operators.
That all changed last year. Delta, in search of a less-trafficked West Coast airport to serve as a hub for its expanding international service, decided on Seattle, opening up several domestic routes to support that long-haul service in the process. And some of those routes overlapped with Alaska’s, setting the two airlines up as competitors fighting for local market share. By mid-2014, the code-sharing agreement had weakened, meaning Delta directed passengers to seats on Alaska flights less and less often. Alaska has since intimated on earnings calls that it has strengthened ties, and frequent flier deals, with other large companies (and direct Delta competitors) like American.
Seattle Business Magazine has called it “The Battle for Seattle.” Snyder’s blog runs a series on the slow-burning competition called “As Seattle Turns.” “It’s a very strained business relationship right now,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel industry analyst. “Delta has been very, very aggressive in Seattle. There’s no question that the relationship has cooled down.”
Though the airlines have said publicly that their official partnership continues, industry analysts say it’s been greatly weakened. “It’s just a matter of time until it gets dissolved,” says Snyder.
Of course, Seattle travelers will probably continue to select flights based on prices, schedules, destinations, frequent flier miles and non-stop flights, like any normal, rational consumers would do. As Harteveldt points out, “It’s unlikely that any in Seattle will choose to fly an airline based solely on a sports team sponsorship.”
But "there’s no question,” says Harteveldt, “that Delta and Alaska are engaged to win the hearts, minds and wallets of Seattle travelers.”