Trending: GeekWire HQ2 revealed: We’re heading to Pittsburgh to cover its post-industrial renaissance and innovation economy

Seattle to Pittsburgh map
(Alaska Airlines via Twitter)

Alaska Airlines announced Wednesday morning that it will begin offering daily, nonstop service between Seattle and Pittsburgh — further connecting the two cities and their shared interests in tech and business.

This new route, which won’t go into effect until next fall, would be the only nonstop flight offered from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Pittsburgh International Airport. As Pittsburgh continues to emerge from its reputation as a shuttered steel town into a growing tech hub, ease of travel to Seattle and the numerous tech companies based in the city will be important.

“The Pittsburgh region has been asking for additional service to the West Coast since I became county executive, and we’re thrilled to welcome Alaska Airlines,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a news release. “Nonstop service to Seattle will provide a critical link for businesses throughout Western Pennsylvania, as well as leisure travelers seeking new options.”

The connection will be especially important for two of the leading computer science institutions in the country — the University of Washington and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.

Longtime UW computer science and engineering professor Ed Lazowska told GeekWire that Alaska’s announcement is “great news.”

“I only wish they weren’t waiting until next fall to launch the service,” Lazowska said. “Carnegie Mellon has one of the world’s great computer science programs — faculty from CMU and UW are flying back and forth all the time and it’s incredibly painful right now.”

Ed Lazowska
Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington takes home the Geek of the Year award at the 2017 GeekWire Awards. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Lazowska said he was last in Pittsburgh in September, and that CMU faculty member Ariel Procaccia will be presenting the Paul G. Allen School’s colloquium on Thursday.

That event will also feature a keynote by Professor Siddhartha Srinivasa, who recently joined the Allen School faculty from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. According to the UW, “Sidd’s pioneering research in robot manipulation is aimed at enabling robots to engage in robust interactions and collaborate effectively and safely with their human counterparts.”

Lazowska said on his recent travels east, he took United Airlines through Chicago to get to Pittsburgh. He left at 6:45 a.m. and arrived at 4:45 p.m. — a 7-hour trip. On his return flight, he was supposed to take United through Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., but one leg of that got cancelled on the morning of his trip, so a last minute re-routing through Newark, N.J., resulted in a 9-hour return to Seattle.

American Airlines has even worse connections, he said.

According to flight times (based on local time zones) posted by Alaska, the nonstop service starting Sept. 6 will leave Seattle at 8:25 a.m. and arrive in Pittsburgh at 4:10 p.m. The return trip will leave Pittsburgh at 5:20 p.m. and arrive in Seattle at 7:50 p.m.

The Seattle-Pittsburgh travel connection also adds further fuel to any fire that is burning in regard to Amazon and which city will land the tech giant’s second North American headquarters.

Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh skyline and Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Pittsburgh was a contender out of the gate in analysis by GeekWire, which cited the Steel City’s ability to attract tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, Uber and others. More than 42,000 people now work in Pittsburgh’s growing tech sector (including more than 12,000 in software development), a growth rate of 24 percent from 2011 to 2016.

Further digging by GeekWire on Pittsburgh’s HQ2 hopes uncovered the ties between the city and some Amazon executives, including Jeff Wilke, CEO of the company’s worldwide consumer business, who grew up there and attended Penn State and later went to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. He’s reportedly a big Steelers fan, too.

Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky also grew up in Pennsylvania and a story in Carnegie Mellon Today magazine credits him with helping to establish a recruiting pipeline to Amazon from CMU. There are now more than 150 CMU alumni at Amazon.

Whether Amazon has the ear of Alaska Airlines is anybody’s guess. This story from CBS in Pittsburgh says that airport and city officials there hope the new service gets Amazon’s attention. A new $1.1 billion terminal announced earlier this year couldn’t hurt either, for a city whose transportation qualifications have been knocked in the HQ2 race.

The future ability of employees to shuttle back and forth between HQ1 in Seattle and wherever HQ2 lands will certainly be important. And Alaska already flies nonstop to 90 destinations.

But while he likes the flight news for what it means for him and the UW, frequent Pittsburgh traveler Lazowska isn’t swayed on the Amazon potential.

“My money is still on Toronto for HQ2,” Lazowska said Wednesday. “A vibrant international city, great universities, outstanding transportation system, broad and deep tech scene, and a federal government that looks outward and forward rather than inward and backward.”

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