Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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The Journey to London Runs Through ... Oakland?
November 3, 2016 -- A burst of route announcements from British Airways in recent days raised eyebrows because of two particular new American gateways. The British flag carrier next year will begin flying to London from both Oakland, California, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Oakland, the poor relation of San Francisco across the Bay? Yup. BA's four weekly flights to London's Gatwick Airport will be in addition to its already-hefty schedule to London Heathrow Airport from San Francisco International (SFO) and a flight from nearby San Jose it launched in May.
And what about those three weekly Fort Lauderdale-Gatwick runs? They'll be piled atop the four daily flights that BA and joint-venture partner American Airlines operate from Miami, just 30 miles down Interstate 95.
At first glance, the British Airways moves might seem defensive. Both new routes match service offered by Norwegian Air Shuttle, a low-fare upstart trying to make its bones across the Atlantic. But there's much more going on here.
Like many international carriers, BA is using the airline equivalent of flood-the-zone coverage. No longer content to offer service only from the international gateway that dominates a geographic region, carriers increasingly add flights from secondary airports, too. All the better to improve their chances of stealing business travelers from competitors.
You could see the strategy in action a few weeks ago when Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, began flying to Dublin from long-ignored Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. Although it has "international" in its name, Bradley hadn't had a transatlantic flight in eight years. That forced Connecticut fliers to brave the Northeast's clogged highways and drive more than 100 miles either to Boston's Logan Airport or New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport.
Aer Lingus opened the Hartford route on September 29 even though it already flies to Dublin from Kennedy, Logan and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The flood-the-zone strategy isn't just about dominating traffic to Ireland from the Northeast, explains Jack Foley, the top Aer Lingus executive in the United States.
"I'm not only selling Dublin," Foley says. "What we're selling is connecting over Dublin to 26 cities in Europe. I'm telling corporate customers in Connecticut — the insurance companies, the universities — that there's no need to drive to Boston or New York. I can get you to Europe from your local airport, which doesn't have the crowds or the inconveniences of the bigger airports."
Is it working? Foley says half the travelers boarding Aer Lingus in Hartford during the first five weeks connected in Dublin for other destinations in Europe. And since he insists the Hartford service doesn't cannibalize traffic from his New York or Boston flights, Foley concludes he's successfully wooing business travelers who otherwise would drive to Kennedy or Logan and fly another airline nonstop to Europe.
To reinforce his convenience pitch, Foley notes that the Aer Lingus club lounge at Hartford's Bradley is just 200 feet from the departure gate. Travelers can park their cars across from Bradley's departure terminal. Check-in and security lines are usually shorter than at Logan, JFK or other large gateway airports.
"What I'm saying to travelers in Connecticut, Western Massachusetts and parts of upstate New York is 'fly me to Paris through Dublin because it's less stressful than driving to the bigger airports and flying nonstop to Paris.' A quick connection in Dublin really is better" than the on-the-ground hassles associated with bigger airports, Foley says.
Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong has followed a somewhat similar strategy. For decades, it limited operations in the Northeast to Kennedy Airport. However, it expanded to Newark Liberty in 2014 and Boston's Logan last year. The results have been positive: Cathay has added additional flight frequencies at those new airports without cutting Kennedy schedules.
"The market isn't just Hong Kong," Tom Owen, then Cathay's top U.S. executive, told me when Cathay added the Newark flights. "We're reaching new markets in Northern New Jersey and offering them connecting flights through Hong Kong to dozens of destinations in Asia. Going to where the customers are gives you the chance to win all of their business to Asia."
British Airways' San Francisco triple play is also a pitch for connecting traffic to Europe as well as what the industry calls the "point-to-point" business to London. Although BA is breaking new ground with the Oakland flights, it's actually a relative latecomer to San Jose, located about 30 miles down US-101 from SFO, the traditional gateway for Bay Area fliers.
When BA launched flights to its hub at London Heathrow from San Jose in May, it became the seventh international carrier there. This despite the fact that more than three dozen international airlines already fly from San Francisco.
The goal of most of those carriers using San Jose — including All Nippon Airways of Japan, Hainan Airlines of China and Lufthansa of Germany — is to convince Silicon Valley business travelers to bypass the traffic-soaked roads of the Bay Area and the crowded terminals of SFO and connect onward from Tokyo or Frankfurt or London.
"Of course, they want the point-to-point traffic, they need it to make San Jose flights work," one airline executive recently told me. "But if I'm All Nippon, I'm telling Silicon Valley types to fly where they need to go in Asia by flying over Tokyo. Yes, it takes a connection, but it's more convenient than the hassle of getting to and getting through SFO for a nonstop."
Simon Brooks, BA's senior vice president of North America, makes the same case, although he presents the flood-the-zone strategy as a passenger amenity rather than an operational strategy.
"It's all about choice for customers," he says. "Being able to fly from the three airports offers more convenience for those traveling from East Bay. And with [Oakland] flight operating to Gatwick, customers have more European destinations to choose from.”