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McClatchy-Tribune  06/15/2014 10:08 PM ET
Delta has big plans for growing Sea-Tac hub [The Seattle Times :: ]

June 15--Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Richard Anderson has ambitious plans to build up Seattle as the airline's West Coast international gateway and its eighth domestic hub.

Delta will not only offer more flights out of Seattle -- many of them in head-to-head competition with Alaska Airlines -- but will also base more jobs here and spend heavily on facility improvements at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The chief of the world's third-largest airline is not shy about pushing assertively into a market where hometown favorite Alaska Air carries more than half of all passengers.

Some analysts see Delta exerting pressure for an endgame in which the giant Atlanta-based enterprise swallows its smaller Pacific Northwest rival.

Anderson deflects talk of that possibility and insists Delta is here "to be successful unilaterally" in a rough-and-tumble industry.

"There's no drama. It's just business," Anderson said. "Is Airbus tough with Boeing? Is Apple tough on Microsoft? It's a competitive marketplace."

On Monday, Delta, headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., inaugurates direct flights from Seattle to Hong Kong, bringing to 10 the number of its daily international nonstop routes out of the city, six to Asia and four to Europe.

Anderson said that adding such destinations from Seattle is "huge for the economic and cultural development of the community."

Delta's expansion requires building up its base at Sea-Tac. Anderson said the airline has about 2,800 employees based here now and will soon grow past 3,000.

"We're in the process right now of hiring 1,400 flight attendants and 600 pilots," he said. "A lot of those will end up based here."

The Port of Seattle plans a new $350million international-arrivals facility -- the first phase is scheduled to open in 2018 -- to be paid for by the airlines that use it.

"Given the sheer number of arrivals we'll have there, the lion's share of that will be Delta's," said Anderson. "We're fully prepared to meet that obligation. ... Seattle is a strategic priority for Delta."

More routes, more ads

Near term, Seattle travelers will certainly benefit, said Michael E. Levine, a former senior airline executive now on the faculty of New York University School of Law.

Expect more flight options, more routes and connections, more perks and special offers, and cheaper airfares. Both airlines are already bombarding the region with ads.

"You have two good airlines trying to make friends with people in Seattle," Levine said. "What could be bad?"

Local Alaska loyalists may possibly view Delta as an invader, like some corporate Darth Vader.

But Levine said it's by far the best managed of the three big U.S. network carriers, with qualities similar to those that distinguish Alaska, but on a vastly bigger scale.

Delta is the most profitable airline in the world. Excluding special tax gains, it made $2.7 billion last year.

It handles much of its own maintenance in-house and has high operational reliability. The company's profit-sharing scheme paid out just over $500 million to employees last year and labor relations are better than at most airlines. That helps ensure better service for passengers.

Bob Cortelyou, Delta's vice president of network planning, said Seattle has the potential to be a big global travel gateway and yet lags behind cities such as nearby Vancouver, B.C., in international connections.

Seattle's relative closeness to Asia, compared to the big California cities, offers Delta flexibility in the aircraft it can fly on trans-Pacific routes.

So Cortelyou's opening new direct routes with smaller airplanes such as the Boeing 767 or 777, or the Airbus A330, rather than four-engine jumbo jets.

"Seattle has a strong corporate base, a strong economy and a relatively affluent population. It's al

 

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