Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis welcomes Alaska Airlines to Pittsburgh International Airport. From left: Audrey Russo, CEO of Pittsburgh Technology Council; John Kirby, Alaska Airlines vice president; and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh International Airport.

A daily nonstop flight to Seattle is “a big win” for Pittsburgh businesses, whether Amazon’s second headquarters joins them or not, and Alaska Airlines will add even more service if its planes are filled with the right yields, promises John Kirby, vice president of capacity planning and alliances.

The nation’s fifth-largest airline will invest in Pittsburgh, starting next September, because of the city’s rejuvenation that includes a vibrant tech sector.

“We wouldn’t make this decision based on any Amazon decision,” says Kirby. “ … We have no knowledge of any way Amazon is thinking.”

But the potential to land Amazon HQ2 stepped up a years-long courtship with Alaska Airlines to restore Pittsburgh’s nonstop service to Seattle that was lost in 2007, says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

“It certainly added to the push,” he says. “ … I think everybody realizes that Pittsburgh is on a trajectory that’s heading in a really positive direction around tech. … Regardless of where the Amazon (headquarters) ultimately ends up, this is a market that will serve in a big way. They will fill these planes.”

Nonstop air service is crucial to a thriving economy, says Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

“Numerous high-profile companies like Westinghouse, Philips Respironics, GNC, Michael Baker, American Eagle, Arconic, Black Box Corporation embody the major Seattle-connected businesses from Pittsburgh,” says Pashman, noting these companies accounted for 15 percent growth in traffic between Pittsburgh and Seattle this year alone. “All of us here are thrilled to demonstrate our support for this West Coast link. I look forward to more expansion, more flights to come, and hopefully one big key company that needs us to use this flight more regularly.”

Pittsburgh becomes the 90th nonstop destination for Alaska Airlines, an $8 billion company that last year acquired Virgin America. Though tickets go on sale immediately, a lack of aircraft accounts for the 10-month delay before the Pittsburgh-Seattle flight can begin, Kirby says. Alaska Airlines flies 40 million passengers a year to more than 115 destinations, with an average of 1,200 daily flights across the United States and to Mexico, Canada and Costa Rica.

In 2018, Alaska Airlines will offer a redesigned cabin with amenities such as power in every seat.

“We offer more of a legacy type of service with a low-fare profile, so think Southwest fares with the best customer service in the industry,” he says. The airline has a frequent traveler program that is still mileage-based and offers amenities such as power in every seat “so you can charge your laptop or phone on that long flight to Seattle.” Other amenities include hot meals on flights and, starting next year, satellite Wi-Fi.

The new service currently is the only nonstop flight offered from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Pittsburgh International. Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis began regularly texting Kirby, her long-time friend, after taking her job in Pittsburgh to urge him to commit to a flight. She commended her team for working to secure the airline’s presence.

“This is a huge win,” Cassotis says. “We are thrilled to have Alaska Airlines as our next new partner here. We are the largest unserved market from Seattle no more. That was the unique position that we held, and now we are going to get to claim nonstop service.”

When he visited Seattle recently as part of the region’s bid to lure Amazon, Fitzgerald says he was surprised to learn the connections to Pittsburgh with people and companies. “There are five Steeler bars in Seattle — that’s how many (former) Pittsburghers live there,” he says.

Audrey Russo, Pittsburgh Technology Council president and CEO, says Alaska Airlines can expect a strong market for its new service.

“This opens up opportunities. It is key for venture capital investment in our region’s tech companies,” she says. “(There is) a lot of wealth on the West Coast, a lot of wealth in Seattle. The easier it is for them to get here, the more they can invest here. The Seattle-based operations to major West Coast cities, they focus on San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Portland and Anchorage. And that, in and of itself, will drive Pittsburgh’s growing West Coast demand.”

Alaska Airlines will begin nonstop daily flights between Pittsburgh and Seattle in September 2018. Photos courtesy Alaska Airlines.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.