It has been decades since a connection in Anchorage was normal for travel between the US and Asia. Even the United Airlines and Delta Air Lines (and Northwest Orient before that) hubs at Tokyo’s Narita Airport no longer serve to connect travelers deeper into Asia. And then there’s Northern Pacific. The airline hopes to once again make Anchorage a major passenger transit point as it plans service from the Lower 48 to Japan and South Korea.
Just six months after initially floating the idea in a message to employees, the company’s name officially changed and the first few planes are inching towards operational. Myriad challenges remain, however. Gaining operating authority is mostly a well documented process, but still needs to be completed. Convincing travelers to take the stop en route is much more of a soft science. Can the company pull off this transition?
n.b. – Travel expenses for PaxEx.Aero o attend the event were paid by the airline. Opinions expressed here are, however, very much our own.
CEO Rob McKinney is 100% convinced this will work, and as the company unveiled the first 757-200 painted in the new livery this week in Southern California he exuded optimism. While there are plenty of challenges remaining, he believes it will happen this year: “Success means that we launch service with 2022 still in the date.”
The stretch goal is a Q3 launch, with a more realistic timing of Q4. That’s still very quick for transitioning from concept to trans-pacific passenger airline.
No ETOPS required
One huge advantage the company holds in reaching that launch target is that its routes will not require Extended Twin-Engine Operations (ETOPS) certification based on Boeing analysis of the route network. McKinney says the company will maintain the engines as though they are operating under the more stringent rules related to such service, potentially pivoting to that in the future. But the nominal route paths stay sufficiently close to alternate airports that Northern Pacific can operate under the much more accommodating overwater rules.
Operating without ETOPS does, however, depend on all the diversion airports and navigation aids being operational along the route. Which is not guaranteed. Given the comments about maintaining the engines to ETOPS standards, perhaps Northern Pacific plans to get there as quickly as it can to minimize operational disruptions, while still launching without the expanded operational capabilities.
Expanding in Asia
The company initially teased Tokyo and Seoul as its launch markets in Asia. It also recognizes that it needs something close to symmetry of feed to keep the operation balanced. Depending on the number of aircraft it can activate for its launch timing, additional markets in Asia may be added. And US markets might be trimmed to help keep that balance.
Additional targets include Osaka and Nagoya, cities with historically far fewer non-stop options for service to the United States. With a single connection to various US markets McKinney says Northern Pacific can deliver relief from the “very painful and expensive trip, with multiple stops” to get to the United States. He believes those markets might succeed with less-than-daily service, three or four days per week each; larger cities on the network will begin with daily service.
He also suggested Harbin, China as a potential destination, one where talks were underway and where the local government was considering subsidizing the operation. McKinney sees that as a much further away target, however, given current border policies.
With a theoretical fleet size of 50 aircraft, however, Northern Pacific would need many, many more destinations. Given the limited range of the 757s it is unclear where all those planes would fly, even considering the secondary and tertiary markets where Northern Pacific expects to thrive.
Making Anchorage Work
Key to all of this, of course, is making Anchorage work as the connection point again. McKinney plans a multi-pronged approach to that challenge.
For the secondary cities that do not see nonstop service today, he expects a shorter total trip time flying on Northern Pacific:
You won’t stand in a three hour long queue at customs and immigration. You’re flying over the top of Anchorage anyway. And we can do it at a lower price point. And we have a superior loyalty program. And we have the ability for people to go visit Alaska for a day when maybe they was on their bucket list, but they will never just go to Alaska because it’s so far out of the way and it just seems so foreign.
Yes, I think absolutely there’s a business case to be made.
For those who do choose to take advantage of the Anchorage stopover, Northern Pacific will offer a fully integrated booking opportunity, including connecting hops on the Ravn fleet to smaller cities in the state. McKinney expects to establish the necessary relationships with hotels and activity partners to help build out those tour packages. And the bits of ancillary revenue that come with it are a nice bonus.
Moreover, while Anchorage is a strong summer tourism destination, he sees opportunity to grow winter options as well. Like much of the rest of the blueprint, he intends to lean on Icelandair as a model for this part of the growth.
Icelandair became masters of festivals and reasons to visit Iceland the middle of winter, and that used to not happen. We plan to do the exact same thing. But the number of passengers transiting between Asia and the US is not seasonal. So maybe the stopover traffic will fall off a little bit. But really the goal for Anchorage is the connection.
Beyond the initial launch
McKinney recognizes that the 757s are not going to last forever. They’re planes “really to get us going” before a change will be required to more expensive aircraft with lower operating costs. So while the short-term plan can execute on the current fleet, the future will look a bit different.
Indeed, McKinney suggests sees potential for twin-aisle planes to boost the operation. “I think that we’re going to spur enough traffic in that will be enough of a market disruptor that it will make sense to up-gauge at some point. That gets us into wide bodies and that also gets us into the option of belly cargo. The business is there, but we don’t physically have the ability to carry it because of the long stage lengths.”
The twin aisle options may be a stretch, but they also offer extended range. Single aisle options, including the A321XLR which likely wouldn’t be available for delivery slots until well into the back half of the decade, don’t extend the range much beyond what the 757 can offer in terms of expanded markets. Unless, of course, the company goes big on secondary China routes.
More on Northern Pacific's history and growth plans:
- Ravn Alaska plans international expansion, 757 acquisition, Anchorage hub
- Ravn Alaska registers Northern Pacific name for transpacific LCC operations
- Northern Pacific snags six 757s for Asia service
- Northern Pacific unveils aircraft, addresses service launch challenges
- Streaming IFE, softer seats feature on Northern Pacific’s new interiors
- Northern Pacific to lease aircraft for service launch
- Northern Pacific seeks public investors
- Northern Pacific visits Saipan in search of partners
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