Airlines Take New Approach to International Routes

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Despite the sputtering economy, airlines still see bright spots in international travel, ranging from emerging markets such as Dubai and Liberia, to old favorites including Paris.

This month, for instance, UAL's ( UAUA) United Airlines began Washington-Dubai service, while Delta ( DAL) launched Atlanta-Mumbai and announced plans to fly to Monrovia, Liberia, its seventh African destination, in 2009. On Wednesday, Delta will unveil additional international destinations for next year.

Already, US Airways ( LCC) and Delta have said that next summer, three medium-sized cities -- Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Raleigh-Durham -- will have seasonal service to Paris.

"We're pleased with the way the Dubai route started out and with what's developing in the Middle East," said Kevin Knight, United's senior vice president of planning, in an interview. "Everything is being impacted by the economy, but the Middle East has been strong. As I tell my employees, we talk about capacity reductions, but we're not solely focused on reducing capacity. There are opportunities. Dubai is one we identified, and we're taking advantage of others, as well."

United is also building its presence in Australia, adding a second nonstop from Los Angeles this summer, giving it nonstop flights to both Melbourne and Sydney. It will add a Dulles-Moscow flight in March, underscoring its confidence in the Dulles hub, which has flights to 21 international cities.

"Dulles flows north/south domestically, and it is a great international gateway," says Knight. "It's much more than government traffic. That whole Virginia area has grown exponentially, and we're the beneficiary."

Like other U.S. carriers, United has seen weakness in China. It eliminated the Los Angeles-Hong Kong route it started last year and scaled back frequencies between Dulles and Beijing, just as Delta is pulling back the Atlanta-Shanghai route. Meanwhile, US Airways, AMR's ( AMR) American and United are delaying China startups that had been scheduled for 2009.

The industry "is going through growing pains in Asia right now," Knight said. "But if you look at any outlook, over the long term Asia will continue to be a strong and growing market." United has dropped a San Francisco-Nagoya flight, as well as Los Angeles-Frankfurt, and has eliminated one of two daily San Francisco-Frankfurt flights.

Other carriers apparently have concluded that if any city can retain its appeal to summer leisure passengers, it's Paris. "You see some others pulling back internationally, but you don't see them reducing service to Paris," US Airways CEO Doug Parker said in a recent interview, as the carrier announced the resumption of Charlotte-Paris flights that were eliminated in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Charlotte/Douglas is far bigger today, following the 2005 merger between hub carrier US Airways and America West. In 2003, the airport handled 23.6 million passengers. The total for the first nine months of 2008 was 26.2 million.

Parker noted that US Airways trails the five other legacy carriers in international service. While others have 40% or more of their capacity in international routes, US Airways has just over half that.

"We still have catching up to do," he said. The carrier also plans new service next year from Philadelphia to Birmingham, England, Oslo and Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, Delta announced summer service to Paris from both Raleigh-Durham and Pittsburgh. The concept seems like a risky one, because Delta lacks domestic feed traffic in both cities. But Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton says both "are solid business travel markets, and these unique nonstop flights take customers to a strong hub in Paris," with connections to about 90 cities on Delta partner Air France.

Though it has eliminated an Atlanta-Vienna route and seasonally reduced trans-Atlantic service, Delta remains committed to international growth. In December, Delta will begin eight new flights to Latin America, the fastest growing international region. American is the leading carrier between the region and the U.S.

Even as carriers are planning new international flights, JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker says US Airways and JetBlue ( JBLU) "remain our favorite names, in large part due to their limited international exposure."

Baker wrote in a recent research report that the only question is "when, not if, the global economy will catch up to the U.S. airline industry." JP Morgan has financial relationships, in both investment banking and noninvestment banking, with JetBlue and US Airways.

In general, while domestic flying has been slashed by an unprecedented 10%, international flying by U.S. carriers remains relatively flat. International capacity rose 1.4% in October and 0.5% in November, and will decline by 1.7% in December, roughly in line with seasonal adjustments last year, according to a report by Barclays Capital analyst Gary Chase.

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