Seasonal Airlines Boost Visitors
Plane-spotting results in more diverse tail fins
A Condor flight, direct from Frankfurt, Germany, is touching down on a naturally landscaped, fireweed-edged runway at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Photo by Scott McMurren, AlaskaTravelgram.com ©2016
For much of the year, plane-spotting at Alaska’s two largest airports can be a little repetitious. Only a handful of airlines fly in and out year-round. But when tourism season rolls around, the designs on the tail fins get a lot more diverse.
In Anchorage, for instance, Alaska Air, Delta Airlines, United Air Lines, and American Airlines fly in to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport year-round. Usually in May, they’re joined by airlines such as JetBlue Airways and Sun Country Airlines, which fly to the West Coast and Minneapolis. Air Canada, Condor, Icelandair, and Yakutia Airlines offer seasonal links to other countries, while China Airlines operates seasonal charters.
The addition of new domestic airlines, such as JetBlue, has helped drive down ticket prices to some destinations. Its inaugural flight to Anchorage, for instance, included $149 one-way tickets from Anchorage to Long Beach, California. Starting with its May 2016 service, it offered $78 Anchorage-Seattle flights. It also had a flash sale offering $30 tickets between Anchorage and Seattle or Portland.
More Direct Routes to Alaska
The bulk of the seasonal passengers are tourists, which provide a huge economic impact to the city, says Julie Saupe, CEO of Visit Anchorage. Overall, visitors spend about $1.8 billion statewide, with $367 million of that being spent in Anchorage. Roughly 40 percent of travelers to Anchorage arrive by air in the summer months.
Saupe and her counterparts at Explore Fairbanks have worked hard over the past several years to entice new airlines to put Alaska cities on their routes. That gives more people a direct route to Alaska, and it can also provide new destinations for Alaskans.
“Every airline brings along its own customer base, people who are loyal to it,” Saupe says. “Most airlines might also bring along a unique new direct gateway city.”
Icelandair is starting direct seasonal service between Anchorage and Reykjavik-Keflavik. It’s an airline and destination Visit Anchorage has been aggressively pursuing for the past five or six years, Saupe says. It took many meetings with airline officials over the years as Visit Anchorage demonstrated the demand for the Alaska travel among Icelandair’s northern European markets.
The growth in the number of seasonal airlines is reflected in a growth in visitor volume. According to a study for the state of Alaska by McDowell Group in February 2016, visitor volume increased 7 percent between 2014 and 2015, 13 percent of which was attributable to a 13 percent growth in air volume. In Fairbanks, visitor traffic rose by 6 percent. Much of that was due to the seasonal return of Air North, which transports Holland America cruise tour passengers between Fairbanks and Dawson City.
Growing International Travelers
Condor Airlines, which offers seasonal service both in Anchorage and Fairbanks, makes up 66 percent of all international air travelers; Icelandair accounts for 27 percent.
Fairbanks International Airport is the smallest city in the United States with nonstop flights to Europe, provided by Condor. While most seasonal airlines cater mostly to tourists, Condor flights between Fairbanks and Frankfurt, Germany, usually have a mix of tourists and locals, according to Deb Hickok, CEO of Explore Fairbanks.
It took the community to bring Condor to Fairbanks, however. According to Explore Fairbanks, one of the key factors in the German airline’s decision to enter the Fairbanks market was the willingness of the owners of Chena Hot Springs Resort, Connie Parks-Karl and Bernie Karl, to underwrite guarantees for a number of seats on each flight, which included a package Alaska/Yukon tour. The flights got underway in 2001 and all guarantees were met until the September 11 terrorist attacks which resulted in the last three seasonal flights being canceled.
The following year, sixteen tourism and airport-related businesses agreed to underwrite Condor’s service to Fairbanks. That time, and since then, the flights were successful. Overall, Condor has transported more than fourteen thousand passengers between Fairbanks and Europe.
While Explore Fairbanks generally focuses on bringing passengers to Fairbanks with Condor, the organization also does some outbound marketing to fill the seats leaving Fairbanks. “That’s an exception to the rule of what we normally do,” Hickok says.
Many of the seasonal flights to Fairbanks, which is served year-round by only by Alaska Air and Delta, operate in the winter instead of the summer season. Over the past decade winter tourism in Fairbanks has boomed because of its reputation as premier spot to view the aurora borealis, especially among Asian tourists.
The push started in winter 2000, when tourism industry leaders in Fairbanks set a goal to bring Japanese tourists on direct flights to Fairbanks to see the aurora. It takes a collaborative effort on the part of tourism officials, tour operators, airport officials, and community leaders to bring a new airline to Alaska, Hickok says. Fairbanks was already an aurora destination in the Japanese market, but tourists had to fly into Fairbanks via Los Angeles or Seattle, which didn’t give them much time to spend in Fairbanks.
Explore Fairbanks approached Japan Air Lines and All Nippon Airways, and Japan Air Lines showed the most interest. Over the next years, they hammered out the details. “Our then-director of tourism went to Japan one year seven times,” she says. Finally, the flights were approved and more than 2,200 Japanese travelers visited Fairbanks during the winter of 2005-2006. Late summer flights brought another 2,150 Japanese visitors.
“It has been very successful, and it’s had a ripple effect,” Hickok says. “[Japan Air Lines] sort of set the stage for us and that was a really hard-won flight. It really positioned us as an aurora destination in the Asian market. Now we have a much more dynamic market.”
Each JetBlue aircraft has a unique name and tailfin. The carrier flies seasonally to Alaska.
© JetBlue Airways
Charter Flights Increase
Charter flights from several international destinations target Anchorage and Fairbanks.
“It’s actually getting more complicated,” Hickok says. “More and more airlines.”
Japan Air Lines had some internal issues and dropped the Fairbanks flights. However, demand was still strong in Japan, and increasing in other parts of Asia, so Uzbekistan Airways partnered with Japanese tour operators in December 2015 to bring tourists from Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya to Fairbanks.
China Airlines also launched charter flights from Taipei to Fairbanks in December 2015, bringing nearly nine hundred people in three flights to view the aurora. The direct flights took only nine hours.
“Direct air access is an important component of our success as a destination, especially when working with a rapidly expanding Greater China market,” Hickok said in a news release announcing the flights. “These charters, combined with recent developments in year-round connectivity from Asia via both Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines, boost Fairbanks’ accessibility to the China market.”
Charter flights from Asia are also popular during the shoulder season in late spring or early autumn. Those travelers have more time than most winter visitors, Hickok says. The airlines, tour operators, Visit Anchorage, Explore Fairbanks, and the Alaska Railroad all work together to make the logistics work out.
Typically, Hickok says, a group will fly into Anchorage and the visitors will ride the train to Fairbanks. A second flight will drop off a group in Fairbanks and pick up the group that originated in Anchorage. The Fairbanks group rides the train to Anchorage and the process repeats itself.
“They are very concentrated efforts, usually very collaborative efforts,” Hickok says. “I think that’s the key.”
Explore Fairbanks’ Director of Tourism Scott McCrea says meetings with tour operators in Taiwan and mainland China focuses on the aurora.
“The recognition is growing in that market that we are the best place on Earth to see the aurora,” McCrea says in a media release. “Even in conversations where there has been a language barrier, the word ‘aurora’ sparks immediate interest.”
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.
This article first appeared in the June 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.