Filed Under:  Business

New Orleans attracts first, non-stop European flights in decades

31st October 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

It’s been 34 years since New Orleans had nonstop, commercial flights to Europe. But next spring British Airways starts a direct route from the Crescent City to London, and German airline Condor will fly from here to Frankfurt. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, meanwhile, has recovered from a slump that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Last year the airport recorded it most passengers ever.

In the late 1970s, travelers flew nonstop from here to Europe. But after the federal Airline Deregulation Act at of 1978, everything changed. “Airlines started operating out of regional hubs, and unfortunately we weren’t one of them,” said New Orleans resident Fran Whidden, a retired flight attendant and purser. She worked for the airlines in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, Delta consolidated in Atlanta, and its airport has been the world’s busiest for almost two decades now.

“Lack of demand also hurt the New Orleans airport in the early 80s,” Whidden said. The oil-price shock from 1979 to 1980 and the nation’s 1981-1982 recession took a toll on travelers and airlines.

New Orleans probably could have been chosen as a regional air center, however. “Delta was once headquartered in upstate Louisiana in Monroe,” Michael Hecht, CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., said last week. He questions why the Crescent City didn’t become Delta’s hub, and he rules out Kenner’s location near the water as a problem. At slightly above sea level, Armstrong is among the world’s lowest-lying airports. But in the Netherlands, Amsterdam’s busy Schiphol terminal is below sea level. New Orleans and its airport, which was once a gateway to Latin America, didn’t promote themselves hard enough to become an air hub.

Monroe was the home of Delta Air Lines from the later half of the 1920s until 1941, when it moved to Atlanta. In the 1970s, Delta launched its European routes.

National Airlines ran flights from New Orleans to Amsterdam and Frankfurt in the late 1970s. But those routes were terminated soon after Pan Am acquired National in 1980. British Airways from May 1981 to October 1982 operated a London Gatwick–New Orleans–Mexico City flight three times a week.

Four years ago, local leaders decided that they’d try to attract nonstop European flights to New Orleans. A public-private team was formed. It analyzed the situation, negotiated and made trips to London, Hecht said. The original team included the airport, the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, GNO, Inc. and the Louisiana Board of International Commerce. The Crescent City competed with other places, including San Jose, California, for a London route. And in August 2015, British Airways announced a San Jose-to-London launch.

After its discussions with the New Orleans team, Germany’s Condor Airlines in early June said it would start non-stops from the Crescent City to Frankfurt in May of next year. This past July, members of Governor John Bel Edward’s new administration and Hecht of GNO, Inc. met with British Airways in London. In late September, the group learned that the city had been chosen for non-stops to Heathrow, with service four times a week, starting on March 27 of next year. Passengers will travel on 787 Dreamliners.

In addition to attracting more tourist dollars, the new European non-stops will create local jobs, stimulate business and add to tax coffers, Hecht said. The team projects that, based on experiences in Phoenix, Tampa and Austin when they acquired London non-stops, tourism spending here will grow by tens of millions of dollars annually. The increase in state and local taxes here from the British Airways flights alone is seen at $46 million a year. And as many as 1,625 jobs could be created in the greater New Orleans area from the London flights, based on what’s happened in Tampa and Phoenix, in particular.

British Airways relaunched non-stops between Phoenix and London in 2010, and started flights to Austin in 2014. In 2011, the airline expanded its Tampa non-stops from Gatwick Airport near London to every day, from five times a week.

Local demand for British Airways non-stops to London extends well beyond New Orleans, Mike Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, Inc. in Evergreen Colorado, said. His firm has worked with the New Orleans airport on service in recent years. “The drive to New Orleans from Baton Rouge, Gulfport and even Jackson, Mississippi can be less time and hassle for someone traveling to London than flying from their own, local airport to Atlanta to connect on Delta to London, or going to Chicago to connect on American or United,” he said.

For travelers from greater New Orleans heading to points beyond the UK in Europe or to the Middle East, direct London service makes trips easier. “Someone headed to Copenhagen, Brussels, Nice or beyond has one connecting flight at the British Airways hub in Heathrow,” Boyd said.

“London non-stops will open up continental Europe, Africa and the Middle East to business travelers and convention goers, in addition to tourists,” Hecht said. These flights will enhance the city’s already-robust convention business. And they’ll service employees of foreign companies engaged in Louisiana’s oil and gas, chemicals and other industries.

For its part, Armstrong will waive landing fees for Condor and British Airways in the first year of operation. In January 2008, the city’s aviation board okayed an amended incentive that removes landing fees for the first year for the first two airlines that fly nonstop to an “under-served destination.” Previously, the incentive was for a “new-destination airport.” The landing fee is $1.07 per 1,000 pounds of weight for scheduled carriers.

In addition, British Airways is being given an incentives package, but the details have yet to be announced, Hecht said.

As for just where the new flights will land, “they will use concourse C, and then all airlines will move to the North Terminal when it opens on October 1, 2018,” Michelle Wilcut, the airport’s deputy director, said last week. The North Terminal will open in the later part of the city’s 2018 tricentennial celebration, which is expected to draw out-of-state visitors.

Meanwhile, after years of debate, Britain in late October approved a third landing strip at London’s Heathrow airport. With that construction plan, the new UK government—struggling after voters decided last spring to leave the European Union—is said to be showing that the nation is open for business.

Last year, a record 10,673,301 passengers used Louis Armstrong Airport, up nine percent from 2014, boosted by service from more airlines and the addition of more non-stops. The previous record was 9,874,257 passengers in year 2000, the airport said. This year, fourteen airlines serve over 50 non-stop destinations, including four foreign cities. Copa Airlines in Panama started flights from New Orleans to Panama City in mid-2015. Armstrong has direct, daily flights to Toronto on Air Canada, and seasonal non-stops to Mexico and the Dominican Republican.

A succession of mayors considered changing the airport’s site, which dates to 1940, and expanding its business. In the 1960s, Mayor Victor Schiro thought about moving the airport, then known as Moisant, to New Orleans East. In the early 1970s, the current airport expanded instead, with construction of Concourses A and B, a longer ticketing area in the main terminal and an access road to I-10. During Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s reign from 1986 to 1994, a new international terminal in New Orleans East or St. Tammany Parish was envisioned. In July 2001, the airport, still in its original spot, was renamed in honor of jazz man Louis Armstrong. Shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck, Mayor Ray Nagin proposed building a new airport for the city in St. Charles Parish. Then in April 2013, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the New Orleans aviation board said a North Terminal would be built at Armstrong, creating thousands of construction jobs.

More than 435 passengers travel daily from Armstrong now, via connections to London and continental Europe, according to the public-private development team. Paris, France was on the team’s wish list. “But this may not be the time for Paris,” Hecht said last week. If the London and Frankfurt routes do well, however, other international flights will follow, he predicted. Talk persists in the travel industry that the city will have non-stops to Dublin, Ireland before the end of the decade.

This article originally published in the October 31, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.