Once nicknamed the ‘Crossroads of the World’, Anchorage Airport used to be a popular refueling hub for several airlines flying between Asia and both Europe and the continental U.S. during the Cold War era. Today, it is largely an international cargo hub with mostly domestic passenger traffic. A new startup airline is looking to bring more international passengers back to Alaska with a low-cost model similar to Icelandair.
Northern Pacific Airways: Transpacific Flights via Alaska
When the pandemic halted flights in 2020, one of the first airlines to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy was little known Ravn Alaska, which partnered with Alaska Airlines to fly passengers to remote areas of Alaska in small prop planes. In November 2020, the airline resumed a few of those routes under new CEO Rob McKinney and the new leadership has bigger plans in the future.
In late June 2021, McKinney revealed details of plans to acquire 10 Boeing 757 aircraft to fly between Asia and the lower 48 via Alaska. Ravn Alaska hopes to launch these long-haul flights under the new name, Northern Pacific Airways, by the summer 2022 travel season. It would revamp the north terminal of Anchorage Airport for its base.
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Where Will Northern Pacific Airways Fly?
In Asia, the airline plans to first fly to Tokyo and Seoul, and hopes to also add Osaka. In the U.S., passengers would be able to clear customs in Anchorage before connecting onward to Orlando, Newark, Las Vegas, Ontario (California), and Oakland. These were mentioned as initial cities the airline is looking to serve in a video McKinney sent to employees, which has reemerged in a tweet from aviation journalist Colleen Mondor.
Why Stop in Alaska?
Historically, airlines like Northwest, Japan Airlines, British Airways, Scandinavian Airlines, and Korean Air used Alaska as an intermediate stop either due to Soviet airspace being closed during the Cold War or early aircraft not having the range to fly nonstop between the lower 48 and Asia.
By the late 80s and early 90s, this type of passenger traffic had pretty much disappeared with the advancement of long-range aircraft and then Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, opening its airspace so airlines were able to take a more efficient route between Europe and Asia.
As for today, the most compelling reason to stop in Alaska would be to experience The Last Frontier either on your way to or from Asia. Anchorage has a strategic location, which is right along the flight path when flying between the continental U.S. and north Asia. Leisure travelers looking to visit multiple destinations in one trip would be able to take advantage of this business model and it could also give a boost to tourism in Alaska.
McKinney told Business Insider, “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.”
For adventure travelers, this presents a great opportunity, especially considering the connecting options to other parts of Alaska via Ravn Alaska. It could be hard to sustain such a model for year-round service given that Alaska is a highly seasonal destination, so it will likely need to have very competitive pricing to fly year-round.
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It’s hard to say what airfares will look like in a post-pandemic world. Flights to Asia were pretty cheap pre-pandemic thanks to competition from mainland Chinese carriers. The number of nonstop transpacific flights is likely to be limited for several years and it could be a good time for an airline like Northern Pacific Airways to enter the market.
By flying narrow-body 757s, it can keep its operating costs down and potentially offer low enough fares to convince people to fly to Asia via Alaska similar to how Icelandair entices travelers to make a stop in Iceland on their way to Europe.
Since it plans to fly a low-cost model, I would expect Northern Pacific Airways to advertise extremely low fares and then charge extra for bags, seat choice, food onboard, etc. Business Insider quoted McKinney saying, “It’s hard to say exactly what the business model is going to look like but right now, we’re really looking at the Icelandair model because they’ve been so successful.”
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When Will Northern Pacific Airways Fly?
For now, Northern Pacific is still in the regulatory process and needs to actually acquire the aircraft, personnel, and authorization to fly. The airline hopes to start service in the summer of 2022, but this could be a difficult task given the ongoing pandemic and time it takes to get approval. I’m cautiously excited to see this airline go forward, but only time will tell if it ever takes off.