Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
HOME E-MAIL JOE PRINT SEND A LINK 2016 COLUMNS JOE'S ARCHIVES SEARCH
How Brexit Is Changing Travel to Britain
September 15, 2016 -- Nearly three months after British citizens voted to leave the European Union, there are few signs that the United Kingdom is rushing to execute a Brexit, that dark and stormy night of economic unknowns. But travelers are seeing a rapid and substantial realignment of air service across the pond.
Changes have come in a rush in recent weeks. Established airlines are pulling back from the British hinterlands. All-business class boutique routes aimed at upscale fliers are disappearing. And an upstart interloper is pouring lower-priced capacity into London.
The state of travel between the United States and the United Kingdom is no small matter. More than a third of our transatlantic traffic flows to or through London, the de facto pre-Brexit financial capital of the European Union. In fact, eight of the ten busiest transatlantic routes from the United States connect to London. We may dream in French, eat like Italians and aspire to German efficiency, but we are historically, culturally and emotionally bound to Britain.
The granular details of the shifting transatlantic tides are chaotic and confusing, so stick with me as we break them down into digestible chunks.
It's London or nowhere There may always be an England, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to fly there. As U.S. carriers consider the real or imagined financial damage caused by Brexit, the first thing they've done is slash flight schedules to English cities not named London.
Since June's Brexit vote, United Airlines has announced it will drop flights to Manchester in northwest England from its Washington hub at Dulles Airport. United is also dumping flights to Newcastle in northeast England from its Newark hub. American Airlines this week said it would end service from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Birmingham in the British Midlands. Delta Air Lines and its vassal, Virgin Atlantic, are cutting winter capacity to the United Kingdom by about 4 percent. Regional British cities are likely to suffer the brunt of the reductions.
Part of the problem is the weakness of the British pound. It plunged more than 10 percent in the hours after the Brexit vote and has hardly budged in the intervening months. That makes the United States dramatically more expensive for visitors from Britain.
"Manchester tends to be a perfect example because there is a lot of leisure travel coming out of Manchester," says Delta president Glen Hauenstein. "Those would be the types of markets that we would look at to reduce."
London loses some shine
The financial case for all-business flights is historically shaky. But it continues to be an attractive gamble on the unusually lucrative routes linking New York and London. The so-called NyLon runs are so rife with premium-class traffic that carriers continue to look for ways to inject all-business class service into the mix.
But with London's place as the EU's money center at risk after Brexit, bankers are beginning to leave. That probably explains British Airways' decision to cut one of its two all-business flights between Kennedy Airport and London City, the vest-pocket airport in the Docklands financial district.
It's a different story at La Compagnie, the French all-business carrier. Next week it ends a 16-month effort to establish a route between Newark and London's Luton Airport. The French firm blamed Brexit, but the truth is that its choice of Luton was a tactical mistake.
Luton's issues are many: few onward flights, limited on-site services, an awkward bus connection if you want to use a train to central London and a reputation as the least desirable of London's airport.
Change planes — and airports
U.S. fliers who once may have connected in London are finding other airports more felicitous. Besides Dubai, the airports in Doha and Abu Dhabi are siphoning off traffic headed to the Middle East, India and parts of Asia and Africa. Istanbul is a strong competitors for traffic headed to Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe and Northern Africa.
For that matter, even Heathrow-based British Airways isn't as focused on London as it once was. Its parent company, International Airlines Group, also own Aer Lingus of Ireland and Iberia of Spain. Madrid's Barajas airport is convenient for transatlantic travelers connecting to Mediterranean countries. And Aer Lingus was specifically purchased last year to divert shorter-haul connecting traffic through Dublin. Besides, Aer Lingus already flies to more destinations in the United Kingdom than BA itself.
London for less
And it's not like you can't find cheap flights to London. Norwegian Air Shuttle, its name notwithstanding, is pouring nonstop capacity from the United States into Gatwick, London's second airport. Norwegian uses Boeing 787 Dreamliners from major U.S. gateways such as New York and Los Angeles, but also Oakland, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and several other cities. Prices are often as low as $400 roundtrip before fees. Norwegian also has a decently priced "premium class" with comfortable reclining chairs and ample legroom.
Even hard-hit Manchester can claim something of a post-Brexit victory. Singapore Airlines next month will launch nonstop flights from Houston. Of course, it's not that Singapore Air is particularly enamored of flying from Texas to Manchester, a good gateway for travel to Wales, Scotland and Northern England. But the Asian carrier was desperate to dump its failing Houston-Moscow route, so even Manchester looks like a better option.