Delta Stakes Out Africa

ATLANTA ( TheStreet) -- As it moves to become a preeminent international airline, Delta ( DAL) is gradually expanding in Africa, an effort that began long before the World Cup brought a surge in demand for seats.

In fact, so many Americans wanted to fly to Johannesburg for the games that Delta bulked up its summer schedule with 17 new non-stop flights from Atlanta, adding about 4,700 seats to the market, which Delta already serves with daily non-stop 777 flights. The 8,439-mile flight -- the longest in the Delta system -- is flown with a Boeing ( BA) 777LR, which seats 278 passengers.

What attracted Delta to Africa was the region's expanding economies and increasing demand by both business and leisure travelers. Leisure passengers include visiting friends and relatives or VFR traffic, which underpins a broad array of international routes. Until Delta began its services, the most likely route to Africa involved a stop in a European hub.

Delta began Atlanta-Johannesburg service in 2006. It initially flew via Dakar because it lacked an aircraft with sufficient long-range capability until the 777ER's began to arrive in 2008. Currently Delta serves six cities in Africa from Atlanta, including Accra, Ghana; Lagos and Johannesburg. From New York's Kennedy, Delta flies to Accra; Cairo; Dakar and Abuja, Nigeria. This summer, Delta will offer 80 weekly departures to Africa, up from 22 in July 2007.

Looking ahead, an Atlanta to Monrovia, Liberia route will begin Sept. 4. Three additional cities -- Luanda, Angola; Malabo, Equitorial Guinea and Nairobi, Kenya -- await approval by U.S. and foreign regulators. "Africa continues to be one of our strongest markets in the world," said Delta spokesman Kent Landers. "Obviously, Johannesburg has had enormous demand due to the World Cup. But since our first flight to Africa, we've had load factors greater than 80%."

Landers said Delta realized, as it reorganized during a 2005 bankruptcy, that the U.S.-Africa market was underserved. In the case of Johannesburg, for instance, the trip through Europe added six hours in each direction. The only other U.S. originating flight is on South African Airways, which flies one-stop through Dakar from Washington Dulles and New York Kennedy. (The westbound trip to Kennedy is non-stop.)

The attraction of serving Africa is not lost on other U.S. carriers. United ( UAUA) launched its first flight to Africa on June 20, a flight from Washington D.C. to Accra. United is also seeking government approvals to serve Lagos. "Africa offers a tremendous opportunity, both on the leisure side and the business side," said spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.

United passengers also have access to Africa through Star Alliance, which includes Brussels Airlines, Egyptair, South African, Lufthansa and other European airlines. Additionally, Continental ( CAL) has said it will begin non-stop Houston-Accra service in November 2011 using a Boeing 787. If that happens, Houston will be one of just four cities in the world -- and the only city in the western hemisphere -- to have non-stop service to every inhabited continent. (Continental also plans Houston to Auckland, New Zealand service.)

Still, a recent report by the Centre for Asia Pacific aviation said that "Air France/KLM coverage enables the Skyteam combination to dominate European access to the continent, from north to south and from east to west, with 42 destination across African countries."

In expanding in Africa, Delta recalls the efforts of Pan American World Airways, which once stood alone as the world's greatest airline in possession of the best route system. Except for Amman, Pan Am served all of the Delta destinations, although not necessarily with non-stop flights, said Jeff Kriendler, a former Pan Am spokesman who is now an aviation consultant.

"There is no carrier today, no airline in the world that has the breadth of the operation that Pan Am had," Kriendler said. "We served Rangoon, Auckland, Fiji, Tahiti, South America and places in Africa that you've never even heard of."

As recently as the 1980s, Pan Am flew to Tel Aviv with a one-stop through Paris; Cairo with a one-stop through Frankfurt; Dakar non-stop and Lagos and Nairobi with one-stops, said Kriendler. Pan Am served Cape Town decades earlier, with a flight that stopped first in Brazil.

In many ways, Delta has emerged as Pan Am's successor -- but one with the advantages of feed traffic in the U.S. as well as its broad alliance. From Pan Am, Delta acquired not only the European division, but also a now-ancient terminal at New York's Kennedy. More importantly, Delta inherited an adventurousness that other carriers seem to lack. "Everybody flies to Brussels," Delta Executive Vice President Glen Hauenstein has said. "The real value is in going to places that are difficult to get to."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.