A history of Delta in Seattle, Alaska Airlines’ hometown

Feb 13, 2020

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Delta Air Lines is firmly ensconced as the Seattle area’s second carrier, having built an Asia gateway and hub there during the past decade.

The SkyTeam Alliance carrier will offer up to 184 departures this summer, including service to seven cities in Asia and Europe, from Seattle/Tacoma International Airport (SEA), according to Cirium schedule data. Hometown carrier Alaska Airlines will offer nearly 345 departures, all of which are to points in North America.

However, while Delta’s No. 2 position in Seattle is not in question, it now faces a new challenge from a rekindled partnership between Alaska and American airlines. As part of the tie-up, American will launch new daily flights from Seattle to Bangalore (BLR) — its only service to India — in October, and London Heathrow (LHR) in March 2021.

The new partnership will strengthen Alaska’s value proposition to travelers in Seattle, ratcheting up pressure on Delta in one of its key West Coast markets.

Related: Alaska Airlines plans to join Oneworld, forms alliance with American

Hub of necessity

Delta’s Seattle hub was a product of necessity. Once a bit player in the Seattle market — it only served the city from Atlanta (ATL), Cincinnati (CVG), New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Salt Lake City (SLC) in 2008 —it more than doubled in size there through its merger with Northwest Airlines in 2009.

Delta Air Lines’ routes from Seattle in December 2010. (Image by Cirium)


The Northwest combo also expanded Delta’s Pacific route map, including Northwest’s hub at Tokyo Narita (NRT). The Minneapolis-based carrier’s network included nonstops between Seattle and both Beijing Capital (PEK), Osaka Kansai (KIX) and Narita, according to Cirium.

That Tokyo hub, Delta eventually realized, needed to go. Thus began its Seattle build up.

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SEATTLE, WA - 2009: A Northwest Airlines Airbus jet backs out of its Sea-Tac Airport gate in this 2009 Seattle, Washington, landscape photo. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Delta gained a sizable presence in Seattle when it merged with Northwest Airlines in 2009. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)


Delta added flights to Shanghai Pudong (PVG) and Tokyo Haneda (HND) from Seattle in 2013, Cirium shows. These routes, plus the others it already flew, were primarily supported by connections with then-codeshare partner Alaska.

However, as Delta added long-haul routes from Seattle it realized that it could fill more seats — and generate more revenue — by providing its own domestic connections rather than flights operated by a partner.

“We are making Seattle our West Coast hub to serve the Pacific,” Mike Medeiros, Delta’s then-vice president for Seattle, told FlightGlobal in April 2014. “We are looking at the top business markets with a focus on Asia.”

Delta had added 18 new routes from Seattle, including flights to Hong Kong (HKG) and Seoul Incheon (ICN), in 2014 — the year it officially declared the city a hub.

Related: The rise and fall of Delta’s Tokyo hub

Delta's route map from Seattle in December 2014. (Image by Cirium)
Delta Air Lines’ routes from Seattle in December 2014. (Image by Cirium)


Delta continued to expand in Seattle, repeatedly going head-to-head with its still partner Alaska on nearly every route it added.

Alaska and Delta finally went their separate ways in May 2017, just five months after the former closed its acquisition of Virgin America.

Today, Alaska still dominates Seattle carrying nearly 49% of the 48.7 million travelers that passed through the airport during the year ending in July 2019, the latest U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data via Cirium shows. Delta carried just 24% of airport traffic.

Alaska routes from Seattle in February 2020. (Image by Cirium)
Delta routes from Seattle in February 2020. (Image by Cirium)
Delta routes from Seattle in February 2020. (Image by Cirium)


American, for comparison, was the fifth-largest airline in Seattle — behind Southwest Airlines and United Airlines — with just over a 5% share of passengers during the period.

For its part, American’s long-haul flights from Seattle will not be the first time the city has had two U.S. carriers competing for international passengers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Northwest and United Airlines competed for Asia-bound travelers from the Puget Sound region with dueling flights to Tokyo and elsewhere.

Aircraft operations at Sea-Tac, 29 March 2016.
Delta, Alaska and American jets on a taxiway at Seattle/Tacoma International Airport. (Image courtesy of the Port of Seattle)


Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG.

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