As Minnesotans return to the skies, a new fight emerges at MSP to take them to Alaska

·6 min read

Jill Sims is an avid traveler with two goals in mind for this summer: access to the great outdoors and avoiding crowds of people.

She and millions of Americans are planning their getaways now that the pandemic is in retreat.

They are buying tickets to wide open spaces in nature — be it mountains or beaches — around the U.S., avoiding the quarantines and virus tests required to go abroad. At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, travelers are heading in outsized numbers to Alaska and several spots in the northern Rocky Mountains, like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Kalispell, Mont.

"It doesn't get much more open than Alaska," said Joe Esposito, senior vice president of network planning at Delta Air Lines. "Last summer was a very big year for Alaska and we think this summer's going to be even bigger."

Airports are getting busier, with security checkpoints now processing about 65% of pre-pandemic passenger volumes. And airplanes are filling up now that all the airlines have unblocked middle seats.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the industry its latest boost in April by telling the public it was safe to travel once fully vaccinated. Booking lead times now stretch several months in advance rather than the two weeks that was typical during the pandemic.

"There's no question there has been a mind-set change," said Kyle Potter, editor of Thrifty Traveler, a website providing airfare deal and consumer travel insights. "People are looking ahead and feeling confident in traveling in a way we haven't seen in the last 16 months."

And that confidence is most visible at MSP in the surging number of flights to Alaska, up 30% this year compared with 2019 levels, said Brian Ryks, chief executive of the Metropolitan Airports Commission that runs the airport.

"People still want to travel and they are substituting international trips for domestic trips," Ryks said, with many people deciding now is the time to check Hawaii and Alaska off their bucket lists. "Those are as exotic of destinations that you can get while still flying domestically."

Twin Cities-based Sun Country Airlines has long been flying seasonally to Anchorage from its hometown, but added Fairbanks to its Alaska summer destinations this year. A couple of months later, the Minnesota-Alaska corridor became a battleground in a simmering squabble between Alaska Airlines and Delta over encroachments on each other's hub airports.

"The competition between Alaska and Delta is absolutely cutthroat right now," Potter said. "That's good news for our region."

In March, Atlanta-based Delta announced a bevy of new or expanded nonstop service between the Lower 48 states and Alaska, including doubling its daily flights between MSP and Fairbanks and adding a third daily flight from MSP to Anchorage.

Exactly one week later, Alaska Airlines announced the launch this summer of nonstop service between MSP and Anchorage for the first time ever.

"Airlines don't take kindly to their competitors going after each other's hubs," Potter said.

MSP officials usually court airlines for months or years before landing a new route. Ryks said he and other airport staffers were caught off guard by Alaska Airlines' new nonstop to Anchorage.

"To be honest, we were a little bit [surprised]. There's obviously some competition there with Delta, no doubt," Ryks said. "But certainly we are pleased with that service. The airline has a good customer service reputation."

Scott Habberstad, director of sales for Alaska Airlines, chuckled and shrugged off the suggestion that its route announcement was the latest tit-for-tat with Delta.

"The industry is trying new things to better understand where our consumers want to go and how they want to get there," he said.

Alaska Airlines' customers and employees in Anchorage have been asking for a nonstop route to Minneapolis-St. Paul for years, he said.

"I can say with a straight face, over the last 20 years, there has not been an employee meeting in Anchorage when somebody hasn't asked us to serve Anchorage to Minneapolis nonstop," he said.

Many area residents have family in Minnesota or their kids come down to play college hockey in the North Star state. "So you just have this flow of family and sport between the two," Habberstad said.

Still, a twice-weekly nonstop is considerably less than Delta's three daily round trips from MSP to Anchorage and its two daily round trips to Fairbanks.

"The connectivity is really strong in our network to get you up to Alaska," Esposito of Delta said.

Without the return of business or international travel, Delta had to throw historical data of where people want to travel out the window when planning this summer's schedule. "So we had to go at it logically in terms where we think people want to book," Esposito said.

Meanwhile, Sun Country is trying to dodge the lunchroom food fight while also seeking to shuttle Minnesotans to and from the 49th state.

Sun Country executives say the times of day — and the days of the week — scheduled for its MSP-Anchorage and MSP-Fairbanks trips are a better fit for Minnesotans' preferred travel times than Alaska Airlines' flights.

"We feel really good about our ability to service the needs of folks originating from Minnesota," said Grant Whitney, Sun Country's chief revenue officer.

As for Delta, Whitney and his colleagues at Sun Country prefer to avoid conflict with the behemoth.

"They have a very powerful hub here in the Twin Cities," Whitney said. "We expect Delta will always have a really big presence in Alaska from the Twin Cities, but we will coexist with them there like we do in many of the markets we serve out of here, but take nothing away from them."

But Alaska's popularity this summer faces an obstacle that air travelers across the country are encountering: a shortage of rental cars at their destination.

Sims, who lives in Minneapolis, was initially thrilled to see Delta launch a huge fare sale this spring for summer flights to Anchorage. She's been there once before and is itching to get back. But after some consideration, she decided to visit Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and Acadia National Park in Maine this summer.

"It is going to be so crowded," Sims said of Alaska. "The rental car shortage does stress me out quite a bit."

When the pandemic grounded travel to a near-halt last spring, rental car companies lost their customers and revenue.

To stymie losses, about one of every three rental cars in the U.S. were sold into the used car market. The resurgence in travel is now happening faster than the rental car companies are able to replenish their stock, and consumers fortunate enough to secure a rental reservation are paying hefty prices at the counter.

"It is a challenge," said Habberstad, who lives in Anchorage. "It's something that I don't think anyone could've predicted 12, 13 months ago."

Visitor bureaus in Alaska have been working feverishly to explain alternative transportation, from shuttle services to trains to private planes, he said.

"I would encourage people to think a little differently about Alaska this year," Habberstad said. "Historically, it's a place people think you have to really plan your trip to. But don't be afraid to book an impulse trip. There are going to be great deals out there at the last minute."

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767

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