Nothing new about additional Europe/Asia direct routes, but still good news. Mexico City would be awesome.
At PDX, new nonstop routes could increase travel, cut prices
Published: Saturday, August 04, 2012, 12:03 PM
Richard Read, The Oregonian
San Francisco, Colorado Springs and Austin just got closer to Portland.
So did Dallas/Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., and Kauai.
Portland International Airport is adding nonstop flights to those cities and more, as economic storm clouds lift and travelers return to the skies.
PDX hasn't yet bounced back to its pre-recession record of 14.7 million passengers a year, set in 2007. But the airport is climbing out of its 2009 trough of 12.9 million, handling 13.7 million passengers last year.
Budget carriers hope travelers will jump at new destinations and fares that should drop as newcomers challenge airlines on existing routes. The flight launches amount to bets on economic recovery, targeting both business and leisure travelers.
David Cush, chief executive of Virgin America airlines, which launched daily service to San Francisco and Los Angeles on June 5, says all the new flights are bound to have an impact.
"It's a good-news story for Portland," Cush said. "It means more competition and it means lower fares. When we looked at Portland, we thought fares were much higher than other markets."
New routes don't just add convenience. Flights to Santa Barbara (Alaska Airlines), Yakima/Wenatchee (SeaPort Airlines) and elsewhere boost Oregon's economy, as spending by airlines and passengers ripples through the region.
And the airport isn't finished expanding, if managers have their way. They hope to reinstate nonstop service to Mexico for both beach and business travelers, to Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City. "We are also evaluating the business case for Orlando and south Florida, possibly Fort Lauderdale," said Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the Port of Portland, which runs the airport.
Globally, U.S. airlines will carry an average of 2.24 million passengers a day this summer, the Airlines for America industry trade association predicts. That's still 5 percent below the all-time high in 2007.
The U.S. carriers will set records on international flights, the association expects. Portland remains the smallest U.S. city with year-round nonstop service to both Asia and Europe, with daily flights to Tokyo and Amsterdam on Delta Air Lines. Delta recently upgraded to the Airbus A330-300 on the Amsterdam route, boosting capacity by 55 seats per plane.
U.S. airfares have not kept pace with inflation, making air travel a relative bargain. Virgin America, famed in part by association to Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson, the brash British billionaire, claims to have brought down fares in markets it enters by as much as 30 percent.
"Generally what happens is everyone drops their fares," said Cush, the Virgin America CEO.
Cush said Virgin picked Portland to be its 18th destination because the airline aims to balance short- and long-haul flying.
"Portland was certainly the biggest Pacific center we hadn't gone into yet," Cush said. "It will be great for not only local flying but a convenient way for people to get across the country," by connecting through California to cross-country flights.
Cush, 52, worked 22 years at American Airlines, one of the so-called legacy carriers, before switching to upstart Virgin America, which is growing fast. Virgin aims to position itself between cut-rate carriers and established airlines, offering lower fares and added services such as Internet access, electrical outlets and live television.
When Virgin America began in 2007, air travel scored below the Internal Revenue Service in customer satisfaction.
"It had gone from being a thrilling thing to do to being what you endured to get where you're going," Cush told business-school students recently at the University of California at Berkeley. "If you're going to be in an airplane, it should be a pleasing event."
As a new entrant, Virgin takes risks, and some don't pay off. The airline launched Toronto service, for example, only to pull out after managers realized that travel there evaporated in winter.
"We misjudged the market," Cush said. "I'm proud we pulled the plug, rather than sitting there two to three years knowing this was going to happen."
All of which shows that in the airline business, PDX included, new routes aren't necessarily forever.