Dubai Flights Open Seattle-India Gateway

Carol Pucci, The Seattle Times, October 9, 2011

Given the gloomy economic times, why would Emirates, the luxury Middle Eastern airline, pick now to announce new daily, nonstop flights between Seattle and Dubai starting March 1?

I once flew on a nearly empty United Airlines flight from Chicago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. "It wouldn't matter if we didn't sell any of the seats," the flight attendant told me. Cargo was the big moneymaker.

Emirates undoubtedly hopes to fill its private first-class suites and lie-flat business-class beds with execs from Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks. But the lucrative market for shipping medical supplies, airplane parts and video games played a huge role in its decision.

Seattle is 700 miles closer to Dubai, a major world cargo hub, than is San Francisco, and we're 900 miles closer than Los Angeles.

"From a fuel point of view, it's a big deal," explained Mark Reis, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport's managing director. It means each Emirates flight can take off from Seattle with a full 15-ton load of cargo at a far lower cost.

For passengers, India is the big drawing card.

"Emirates is effectively the international carrier for India," Reis said, and India is Seattle's fastest-growing market for air travel, outpacing even China. Emirates flies to 11 cities in India including the high-tech center of Hyderabad, where flight time from Seattle will be 21 hours, including a three-hour layover in Dubai. Round-trip economy class fares are in the $1,700 range.

Emirates is not a member of the Sky Team or Star Alliance, meaning passengers won't earn frequent-flier miles on most flights, but that could change.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines often strikes mileage partnerships with individual airlines as it did recently with Icelandair.

"Emirates has had conversations with Alaska," Reis said. "It would not surprise me over the next year or two, or maybe even by March, that there will be some sort of a relationship between Alaska and Emirates."

Good news for travelers

Not that anyone is cheering the dismal state of the global economy, but travelers could benefit from the problems in Europe and here at home.

Microsoft's Bing Travel reports that fares on domestic flights through Dec. 20 are expected to be down an average 1.4 percent from last year, with hotel costs also dropping slightly.

Another spot of good news: The value of the euro, Mexican peso and other world currencies are falling against the dollar, meaning your money buys more than it did a few months ago. A Paris hotel room priced at 100 euros, for example, cost $145 three months ago, based on an exchange rate of $1.45 to one euro. Today, the cost is around $133.

Airlines have cut routes and flights to shave costs, a move that would normally trigger higher fares. But with oil prices falling, and fewer business and leisure travelers flying, airlines are struggling to fill seats on many international flights.

"That in my mind gives a pretty good outlook for some bargains to Europe," says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of JoeSentMe, an online newsletter for business travelers. "If you have any money, this might not be a bad winter to travel."

It's what's for lunch

A first-class mileage upgrade on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Tucson, Ariz., earned me a lunch of spinach salad, tomato soup and a Bible verse.

What was the little card picturing blue sky, mountains and a three-line Psalm doing on my tray?

It turns out these are not new. It's just been a while since I've flown Alaska's first class ... a long while.

"Psalm cards were originally included on our meal trays as far back as the early '70s, and have been there since," airline spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey explained in an email. "We started them when Alaska Airlines was much smaller as a way to distinguish our service."

Many assume the idea came from former CEO Bruce Kennedy, who did missionary work after leaving the airline, but it was a marketing executive who brought the idea over from Continental. Lindsey said Alaska has received many positive responses from passengers, along with an occasional complaint.

I'd just as soon the airline stick to providing flight safety info. On the other hand, Psalm 9:2 was more interesting than reading another credit-card application.

Your thoughts?

Have a question or a comment about travel? Contact Carol Pucci at [email protected]. Twitter: @carolpucci