A new U.S. airline aiming to be the “Icelandair of the Pacific” is poised to launch later this year with airfares at least 20 percent below standard flights between the United States and East Asia.
Instead of Reykjavík, Northern Pacific Airways will fly out of Alaska, from an under-utilized terminal at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, with a fleet of up to a dozen Boeing 757 aircraft flying both to points in the lower 48 states and to gateways in Japan and South Korea.
The first of those planes was unveiled at a ceremony in an airport hangar in San Bernardino, California, this week, where executives of the startup shared details of their admittedly unconventional strategy.
Northern Pacific CEO Rob McKinney told AFAR that while he’s used to hearing people dismiss his business plan as “crazy,” he feels “it’s a great time to start an airline.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, “we can take advantage of easier access to aircraft and airports” that likely will become scarcer once the current crisis passes.
As for the fact that the Asian destinations Northern Pacific is proposing to serve are still effectively closed to most U.S. leisure travelers due to pandemic protocols, McKinney said he’s “optimistic” that we’ll be well past the peak of the pandemic by the time the airline gets into the air and that restrictions will ease.
The aim is to mimic the Icelandair model by luring fliers with low fares and stopovers in Alaska to break up their trip. For its domestic connections, Northern Pacific is considering flights out of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, and Orlando; in Asia, it’s eyeing Seoul, South Korea, as well as Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka in Japan. The international flights would be about seven or eight hours in duration, which works with the range of the narrow-body 757, an aircraft other airlines have used on shorter flights across the Atlantic.
The Northern Pacific planes will have 180 seats in three classes—a dozen business-class seats plus premium economy and economy seats.
The carrier recently filed an application to sell tickets with the U.S. Department of Transportation, and it is aiming to begin operations in the third or fourth quarter of 2022, McKinney said. It doesn’t need to go through the rigorous process of being certified as a brand-new airline, however; it’s under an existing airline, Ravn Alaska, where McKinney is also serving as CEO after purchasing the regional carrier out of bankruptcy in 2020. Ravn operates regional turbo-prop flights around Alaska and would partner with its sibling airline to offer layover passengers options for seeing other parts of the state.
Of course, the big question with any startup is, will it succeed?
“Unfortunately, as history shows, the track record for airline startups isn’t good,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder and analyst at Atmosphere Research. But, he noted, having new and innovative companies enter the business will encourage competition and be good for consumers. And travelers should expect to see more new entrants as travel recovers.
“Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do airline entrepreneurs,” he quipped.
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