Delta says it will acquire United's rights to operate three daily flights between New York and London, pending US Department of Transportation approval. But the SkyTeam carrier is unable to buy any of United's excess Heathrow slots because the current UK-US bilateral limits Heathrow access to American Airlines and United.

Delta will initially operate one daily frequency between New York JFK and London Gatwick with the launch date to be set after approval is secured. Delta plans to add a second frequency next spring but to operate a third would require more slots at Gatwick. Delta now holds five pairs of slots at Gatwick but only uses four - three for Atlanta and one for Cincinnati - and is reducing its Atlanta service to double-daily to make room for double-daily flights to JFK.

The carrier has long eyed New York-London to complement its fast-growing transatlantic line-up from JFK, where it now operates 21 routes to Europe including Edinburgh and Manchester. JFK-London has been a 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 at London while Delta has been by far the larger carrier from continental Europe.

United will continue to serve Heathrow from Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington. Its decision to cease on 30 October its one remaining New York-London flight - it previously had multiple flights on the route with service from JFK and Newark - will allow it to sell another pair of highly coveted slots. It last sold two slot pairs to British Airways in 2003.

United's decision to abandon JFK-Heathrow is part of an overall strategy to focus more on international flights that connect with its major hubs. United in 2002 moved its JFK-Buenos Aires and JFK-Sao Paulo flights to Dulles and later this year will also move its JFK-Tokyo Narita flight to Dulles.

But the closing of the JFK minihub 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. Star says route decisions are "fully in the hands of the individual carrier and are not discussed" at the alliance level. Star will still offer several options between Europe and USA, but without any non-stops connecting the two largest cities it will be at a disadvantage when selling around-the-world tickets to jet-setting executives. ■

Source: Airline Business