In the hunt for great air fares, travelers sometimes forget how important it is for a community to have good, consistent nonstop air service.
This is not only crucial to the travel industry. It's also important for everyday business travel, for mail and cargo -- even medical travel. The additional busywork of changing planes really does make a difference.
In Anchorage, travelers have an extraordinary number of options. Even cities twice our size do not have the robust air service that we sometimes take for granted.
Yesterday, Alaska Airlines announced it will start weekly nonstop service between Anchorage and Kona on Nov. 10. This is in addition to its seasonal nonstop service to Maui and its year-round service to Honolulu. Compare that to the previous choices of flying through the West Coast, or even changing planes in Honolulu. The Honolulu option isn't bad, but it still adds several hours to the travel time. The West Coast option? Let's not even go there.
From Anchorage, Alaska Airlines operates nonstop flights to: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Honolulu and Maui (seasonal). Here in Alaska, they fly from Anchorage to Kodiak, Cordova, Juneau, Fairbanks, Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Bethel, King Salmon, Adak, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. They are huge.
Last month, Yakutia Air announced plans to fly nine flights between Anchorage and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The proposed flights, aboard a Boeing 737-700, will operate each Thursday between July 12 and Sept. 6, 2012. I do not know much about Yakutia Air, but everyone wants the flights to be successful, so as to re-open air links between Alaska and the Russian Far East.
If it's successful, the flights could also trim many hours off of travel to destinations like Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul. Currently, though, it's still unclear how to book the tickets, aside from contacting the airline's sales agent, Mark Dudley, at 206-443-1614.
On the international front, it's hard to overstate the importance of Condor Air's nonstop flights to Frankfurt from Anchorage. Right now, at the height of the summer season, Condor operates four "over-the-top" flights each week to Frankfurt on Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. In September, they'll drop down to once or twice a week until their last flight on Oct. 9. Rates for fall travel are available for as little as $857 roundtrip (Sept. 25-Oct. 6, 2012).
Condor's Thursday flight from Anchorage touches down in Fairbanks to pick up passengers before flying on to Frankfurt. Also, travelers in Southeast Alaska can make the trip to Whitehorse to catch the weekly nonstop to Frankfurt on Sundays. It's much less expensive than going to Seattle!
This summer, you may see some Korean Air or Japan Airlines planes on the ground. These are charters, bringing in travelers from the Far East to Anchorage and Fairbanks. Unfortunately, Anchorage travelers are prohibited from traveling on the planes. So it's great news for the local tourism industry and for the airport -- but it doesn't mean much for those of us who want to fly to Asia.
During the summertime, of course, Anchorage gets a big boost with seasonal service from American, Air Canada, Sun Country, jetBlue and Frontier Airlines. Also, United, Delta and Alaska beef up their schedules to handle the influx of visitors.
Fairbanks also gets increased service from Delta, as well as new seasonal service from United and Frontier.
Any new route is good news for the community. United Airlines recently announced two new routes for Alaska: Year-round Anchorage-Denver service and seasonal Fairbanks-Denver service. Anchorage travelers are accustomed to good service during the summertime to the Mile High City, with nonstop service from Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines and United. But United's commitment to year-round service is a big boost for the community. In addition to the supplemental lift, it's a year-round competitive damper on prices, which can float up to more than $600 roundtrip during the winter (compared with $300-$400 in the summer).
And kudos to United for bumping up service in the summer to include nonstops from Anchorage to Houston, San Francisco and Chicago, in addition to Fairbanks-Denver, Anchorage-Denver and Anchorage-Seattle. Truthfully, United markets more to Outside customers rather than to Alaskans, who are often loyal to Alaska Airlines and its Mileage Plan.
This is jetBlue's second year operating seasonal Long Beach-Anchorage nonstop service. The flight has transformed the market between Anchorage and Southern California. On any given day, travelers can shop for flights between Anchorage and LAX or Long Beach for $317-$450 roundtrip. That's much less than tickets between Anchorage and Seattle, for example.
And while jetBlue has not committed to year-round service, it doesn't mean they're not considering it. Scott Laurence, jetBlue's vice president of Network Planning, writes: "We've been pretty public about our ambition regarding moving to annual service…If we can make Anchorage work annually, we'll start thinking about Fairbanks."
Aviation routes represent crucial economic links not just between Alaska and the Lower 48, but also within the state. Grant Aviation has grown from its western Alaska routes to serve Anchorage-Kenai, competing with Era Alaska. Grant also flies Anchorage-Homer and Anchorage-Valdez. The planes are smaller--but the service provides a competitive balance for travelers in these small communities.
It's true that aviation has an outsized influence on our Alaska lifestyle. Not just for tickets to our next vacation destination, either. Rather, nonstop flights represent a turbo-boost for the economic engine of our state.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com. And follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/alaskatravelgrm for breaking updates.