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Course correction: New airline to fly Las Vegans to Mexico

Updated May 25, 2023 - 9:37 am

Northern Pacific Airways has had quite a flight so far without ever transporting a passenger.

The low-cost air carrier still has Las Vegas in its plans, even though its original business model has changed dramatically and the airline won’t be crossing the Northern Pacific anytime soon.

Rob McKinney, CEO of both Northern Pacific and Ravn Alaska, a small commuter carrier operating at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said he’s close to starting a revised strategy for his operation.

Originally, McKinney was looking to fly his fleet of four twin-engine Boeing 757 jets to Asian destinations via Anchorage.

The idea was to fly from several U.S. destinations to Anchorage for a change of planes with flights initially continuing to Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. Northern Pacific would offer a free stopover in Anchorage for travelers who wanted to see the Last Frontier before continuing on to Asia or when returning home.

McKinney explained that fully fueled jets are more expensive to operate with the added weight of the fuel, so a stopover in Anchorage allowed the company to load less fuel for the trip and the company has infrastructure in place to refuel in Alaska.

He also said passengers going through U.S. Customs and Immigration would have an easier experience at less-crowded Anchorage than in some of the traditional gateway cities in the rest of the United States.

The company even invested in building a 50-seat Imax theater as an airport lounge for passengers to watch a film of what they’d be missing if they didn’t stop over in Anchorage.

McKinney also operates Ravn, which has a fleet of de Havilland Canada Dash-8 turboprop planes that make short flights to Kenai, Homer and Valdez as well as to more remote destinations of Unalakleet, St. Mary’s, Aniak, St. Paul Island, King Salmon, Dutch Island, Sand Point and Cold Bay.

“The original strategy and business plan was pretty much a wholesale copy of what Iceland Air has done over the Atlantic,” McKinney explained. “If you look at where Iceland is and where Anchorage is, we’re at the exact same latitude and pretty much the same distance across the ocean.”

Iceland flies routes between the U.S. and Europe with a free stop in Reykjavik. It’s the same concept Southern Nevada-based National Airlines used in Las Vegas when that airline flew domestic routes between 15 cities between 1999 and 2002 and had stopovers at what was then McCarran International Airport.

McKinney’s plans changed after Russia invaded Ukraine last year and the Russian government forbade U.S. commercial air carriers from flying in Russian airspace. Suddenly, Northern Pacific’s routes to Asia became longer and more expensive by having to maneuver around Russia.

While seeking a solution, McKinney, who had already started the hiring and training process for pilots and flight attendants, opted instead to fly routes from Ontario, California, to three Mexican tourist destinations, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas and Guadalajara. Flights would originate in Las Vegas with one stop in Ontario before continuing on to Mexico and return flights would make the California stop.

McKinney said getting the necessary Mexican aviation approvals is still 60-85 days away, so he doesn’t anticipate flights to Mexico to begin until fall. Officials at Harry Reid International Airport said they have the capacity to accommodate the airline.

And, he hasn’t given up on the vision of making one-stop, low-cost travel to Asia eventually.

Once the airline starts flying, McKinney said the company would begin expanding its 757 fleet. After service is inaugurated to Seoul and Tokyo, he said the company would look at service to Osaka and Nagoya, Japan, as well.

MGM Resorts International is moving forward with investing $10 billion to build an integrated resort with a casino in Osaka, scheduled to open in late 2029.

McKinney, a licensed pilot who once did a standup comedy set at the old Stardust in Las Vegas, said other details about Northern Pacific would be released next month.

“It’s a little unusual that we’re called Northern Pacific, and we don’t actually fly there just yet,” he said.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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