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Alaska Airlines to expand freighter service to Los Angeles

First Boeing 737-800 cargo jets enable carrier to go farther south

Alaska Airlines currently operates three Boeing 737-700 cargo jets. Next month they will be joined by two larger 737-800 converted freighters. (Photo: Alaska Air Cargo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Alaska Airlines will take advantage of two new Boeing 737-800 converted freighters to open its first dedicated cargo service south of Seattle, starting in April, said Adam Drouhard, managing director for cargo.

Los Angeles will be the newest market for the freighters, which currently don’t fly beyond Seattle in the Lower 48 states.

The newly modified aircraft will help Alaska Air Cargo broaden its market reach in Alaska, speed up deliveries and reduce stress on the airline’s three Boeing 737-700 converted freighters that currently serve the state.

By bringing on the new 737-800 cargo jets, “we’re making sure we’re getting reliability in our schedule, getting more balanced with our fleet. But it’s going to add a lot of capacity and growth. There will be about 70% more capacity in our network overall for the state,” Drouhard told FreightWaves at the AirCargo 2024 conference here this week. He spoke on the exhibit floor, where Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK) had a booth to showcase its transport service to freight shipping intermediaries.

In November, Boeing delivered one 737-800 passenger aircraft for all-cargo operations and is putting the finishing touches, including upgrading galley fixtures and a new paint job, on the second aircraft. Touch work on the planes, which came from Alaska’s passenger fleet, was done by Boeing’s airframe repair partners in Costa Rica and Canada. 

The first plane is currently grounded for scheduled maintenance. Both cargo jets will be ready for service by mid-March, the cargo chief said. 

The conversions were originally scheduled to be completed last year, but the aerospace industry is still plagued by shortages of skilled workers and supply chain challenges that have delayed production across the aftermarket freighter industry.

With five freighters in the fleet, Alaska Air Cargo will be better able to deliver medicine, household goods and fresh food to communities in Alaska, many of which have limited road access, while also moving seafood and other export commodities to cities across North America with passenger services that connect in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Each 737-800 freighter can carry 10,000 pounds more than a 737-700. With a configuration that also holds more containers, the -800s  will have 40% additional space than their predecessors.

Widespread dependance on air service means the Alaska Airlines freighters make about seven departures per day, which is more taxing on the airframe and engines than flying at a constant speed and altitude. The 737-700s on some routes make three to five stops between Anchorage and Seattle. The planes also run about 10 hours per day. By reducing daily operating time to eight hours and the number of cycles, Alaska Air Cargo can extend their longevity, Drouhard explained.

“The uniqueness of that market up there is high cycle for us. So as we add two more aircraft to our fleet, it helps us right-size capacity so we’re not trying to solve so many stops off of one plane,” he said. “It also allows us to unbundle markets, so that way markets get much more dedicated capacity that’s not shared. We’re able to spread that schedule across more aircraft.”

Inside main deck of Boeing 737-800 after conversion to cargo configuration. (Photo: Alaska Air Cargo)

The new Los Angeles destination will initially be connected to Alaska through Seattle, but management expects to launch direct flights between Los Angeles International Airport and cities in Alaska in 2025. Alaska Airlines currently averages three daily departures from Seattle to Alaska.

“As the new expansion gets going, we want to keep close to Seattle rotation-wise. It makes it simple for us. As we get this set in place, we’ll be looking at opportunities to go direct to Anchorage, or other places like King Salmon, Bethel, Nome or the Alaska North Slope,” said Drouhard.

The new freighters are also in the process of becoming certified for flying long distances over open water. The aircraft’s expanded range will allow the cargo team to explore new routes, such as a possible nonstop from King Salmon to Seattle. 

Cargo revenue at Alaska Airlines was about $130 million in 2023, nearly flat with the prior year. The revenue performance was much better than that of most airlines, which experienced revenue declines of 25% to 50% last year because of tepid freight demand and overcapacity. The difference is that most airlines operate in the international freight market, where the downturn was most severe, whereas Alaska operates domestically.

Drouhard said he expected to generate 10% to 15% more cargo revenue in 2024 because of the larger cargo fleet.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]