The recent decision of United Airlines to sell its New York-London route authority leaves the Star Alliance without any presence on the most important transatlantic sector and puts on the market another two key slots at Heathrow Airport, writes Brendan Sobie.
Delta Air Lines has agreed to acquire United's rights to operate between New York and London, pending US Department of Transportation (DoT) approval. But the SkyTeam Alliance carrier is unable to also buy any of United's excess Heathrow slots because the current UK-US bilateral only gives Heathrow access to American and United Airlines.
A Delta spokesman says the rights acquired allow it to operate up to three flights per day between London and New York but it will initially operate only one frequency with the launch date to be set after DoT approval is secured. Delta already plans to add a second New York-London service in its spring/summer 2007 schedule but to operate a third would require more slots at Gatwick. Delta now how holds five pairs of slots at Gatwick but uses only four - three for Atlanta and one for Cincinnati - and will reduce its Atlanta service to two daily flights to make room for the new New York JFK service.
The Atlanta-based carrier has long eyed authority to serve New York-London to complement its fast-growing transatlantic line-up from JFK Airport, where it now operates 21 routes to Europe, including Edinburgh and Manchester. It refers to the new service as the "crown jewel" for its JFK hub.
JFK-London has been a huge missing link in Delta's route portfolio since 1991, when it acquired Pan American's continental European route network. In the same year, Pan Am separately sold its London routes and Heathrow slots to American while United acquired its London routes and Heathrow slots from TWA.
American and United have since enjoyed strong market share out of London, while Delta has been by far the larger carrier out of continental Europe. United says it remains committed to London and will continue to operate three daily flights to Chicago O'Hare, three to Washington Dulles, two to Los Angeles and two to San Francisco. But only last year United had 13 daily flights from Heathrow and a few years ago it operated multiple frequencies to New York with services to both JFK and nearby Newark.
United declines to discuss slot sales, which is not surprising given the controversy created in 2003 after it sold two pairs of Heathrow slots to British Airways. The decision to cease its lone remaining JFK-Heathrow flight on 30 October will allow it to sell or lease another pair of highly coveted slots because it has no plans to increase frequencies on any of its four other Heathrow routes.
United's decision to abandon JFK-Heathrow is part of an overall strategy to focus on international flights that connect with its major hubs. In 2002 United moved its JFK-Buenos Aires and JFK-S縊 Paulo flights to Dulles, and later this year will also move its JFK-Tokyo Narita flight to Dulles.
But the closing of the JFK mini-hub leaves the Star Alliance without a major presence at the key New York airport. Oneworld now dominates the New York-London sector with 12 daily flights between American Airlines and British Airways, according to Innovata. SkyTeam now gains access to the route for the first time through Delta.
A Star spokesman says route decisions are "fully in the hands of the individual carrier and are not discussed" at the alliance level. He points out Star will still offer several options between the UK and USA. But without any non-stops between the largest cities in the UK and USA, Star will obviously be at a disadvantage when selling around-the-world tickets to jet-setting executives.
If the UK and USA could finally agree on an open skies deal, BMI would launch JFK-Heathrow in a heartbeat, again giving Star presence on the sector. An open skies pact would benefit nearly every airline - it would allow United to launch Heathrow-Denver and potentially give Delta and other US carriers access to Heathrow - and the consumer. But while the UK-US remains one of the world's most restrictive aviation markets, it is impossible for every major alliance to have equal access to such critical markets as London-New York.