SECRET FLIGHTS FOR SAVVY TRAVELERS
By Joe Brancatelli
January 23, 2014 --Dr. Amir Kalali is a frequent flier on the nonstop route between Los Angeles and London, but you'll rarely find him on the well-known U.S. or British airlines that ply the 11-hour run.
Kalali much prefers to fly Air New Zealand and does so in business class about 10 times a year.
"Air New Zealand truly has a differentiated product, very competitive pricing with superior, personalized customer experience," the neuroscience researcher explains. Kalali raves about the Kiwi carrier's flat-bed seats, the "friendly and always very professional" in-flight staff, the Air New Zealand lounge at LAX and the club's manager, Thierry Pillet.
You didn't know Air New Zealand flies nonstop between the British capital and Hollywood? Most travelers, even experienced frequent fliers, don't. Just as they have no clue that Singapore Airlines flies nonstop between Houston and Moscow, Emirates Airline runs a nonstop between New York and Milan or that Malaysia Airlines operates a nonstop between Los Angeles and Tokyo.
These secret oddballs of commercial aviation are often a terrific source of low fares or, as Kalali insists, an opportunity to get better service than what is offered by the expected incumbents. Air New Zealand's business-class fares to London and Malaysia Airlines' rates to Tokyo are often half the price quoted by competitors. Meanwhile, if you want a nonstop widebody flight with four classes of international service between New York and Vancouver, your only option is to fly Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong carrier. And that Singapore Airlines Houston-Moscow flight is the only nonstop of any kind between the two cities.
But the heyday of secret flights like Jet Airways of India's nonstops between New York and Brussels may have passed. And that's bad news for bargain hunters, connoisseurs of the unique and aviation geeks who love to fly the quirky skies.
To understand why many of the flights are past their sell-by dates you need to understand why they exist at all. For decades before aircraft existed to fly very long routes, airlines needed to connect two distant nations. So the carriers—and the governments that sponsored and often owned them—negotiated protocols to permit the carriers to operate via third countries. The fifth protocol—or fifth freedom in aviation lexicon—also allows the airlines to sell tickets on all segments of the connecting route.
But the development of jets capable of flying longer hauls often obviates the need for what the industry calls "beyond rights." One example: the first time I flew to London decades ago, it wasn't on British Airways or the then-dominant U.S. carriers, Pan Am and TWA. My travel agent booked me a bargain fare and wangled an upgrade on Kuwait Airways, which flew a New York-to-London nonstop as part of its onward service to Kuwait City. Kuwait Air long ago acquired newer aircraft that allowed it to fly nonstop between New York and the Gulf nation. Dozens of similar secret flights have disappeared in recent years for the simple reason that a connecting multi-city route is no longer required.
Another reason fifth-freedom runs are disappearing? Airline alliances such as Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star. One example: Japan Airlines once flew a nonstop from Los Angeles to Sao Paulo. The reason? Brazil historically has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan and Japan Airlines could only reach it with a stop in Los Angeles. Now, however, JAL connects Japan and Brazil via a code-share with its Oneworld partner American Airlines. Many other such "beyond" services have disappeared as airlines increasingly rely on code-share partners to fill gaps in their route networks.
Still, secret flights don't always disappear. Consider the Cathay Pacific run between New York's Kennedy Airport and Vancouver. Cathay launched nonstops between New York and Hong Kong in 2004 and today flies three times daily between the two cities. It's also adding a nonstop between Newark and Hong Kong in March. But it continues the JFK-Vancouver-Hong Kong route because it's popular.
"New York-Vancouver has a decent result for us," says Tom Owen, Cathay's senior vice president for the Americas. He claims Cathay commands 55 percent of the market between the two cities because customers prefer the airline's four-class widebody flights on the nearly 6-hour transcontinental run over the two-class narrowbody service offered by competitors such as Delta, United and Air Canada.
"We have flat beds in [business and first class] and no one else does," he explains. "And our premium-economy cabin does well, too."
Fifth-freedom flights also make sense when an airline can't make a nonstop work financially. Consider Singapore Airlines' recent decision to drop its nonstops to Singapore from Los Angeles and Newark. Although those two ultra-long-haul flights weren't profitable, Singapore continues to operate from San Francisco (via Hong Kong or Seoul), Los Angeles (via Tokyo), New York (via Frankfurt) and Houston (via Moscow). Those runs are viable because Singapore Air can sell tickets not just to Singapore, but also from the U.S. cities to the intermediate points, too.
As the only nonstop carrier in the Houston-Moscow market, Singapore has even become the carrier of choice for frequent fliers who work in the energy sector in both cities. About half of Singapore Air's business on the route is what the industry calls "origin and destination traffic," meaning travelers start and end their journeys in Houston and Moscow.
Secret flights also continue to make sense in markets that are impossible to connect on a nonstop basis. With no aircraft capable of flying nonstop between Auckland and London, Air New Zealand breaks the 11,400-mile itinerary in Los Angeles and woos upmarket business travelers like Kalali with lower fares and personalized treatment.
That also explains why Air Tahiti Nui, the flag carrier of the Pacific island nation, operates nonstop between Los Angeles and Paris. It's around 9,500 miles from Tahiti to France, the island's former colonial master. So it runs a connecting service via Los Angeles and has developed a following of in-the-know Americans who rely on Air Tahiti Nui for less-expensive flights between LAX and Paris. The same is true for the Korean Air service from Seoul to Sao Paulo via LAX, a journey of more than 11,000 miles.
Kalali has used Korean Air to Sao Paulo and for reasons similar to his decision to fly Air New Zealand to London. Korean Air, he says, "is by far the best way to get to Brazil from LAX."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.