American, United Battle for Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES ( TheStreet) -- Every trend line in U.S. aviation seems to lead to Los Angeles International Airport, now a key battleground as the country's Big Three airlines grapple for transpacific superiority.

The trends include growth in transpacific travel (particularly to China), growth in the importance of international alliances, growth in commitment to hub flying and increasingly confrontational relations between these carriers.

At the start of the year, the same battle was being fought in Tokyo, as Delta ( DAL) sought to undo American's ( AMR) decade-old partnership with Japan Air Lines.

That didn't work , meaning that American, Delta and United ( UAL) all continue to operate hubs at Tokyo's Narita Airport, the most important airport in Asia because of its broad range of connections.

The focus shifted to Los Angeles this month. On October 1, American filed for a Los Angeles-Shanghai route. On October 7, regulators approved. On October 6, American partner Iberia said it would start Madrid-Los Angeles service next April.

On October 12, United applied for Los Angeles-Shanghai. On October 13, regulators approved. . And on October 20, American announced plans to boost Los Angeles service by 28% in April, with service to 10 new destinations.

Also on October 6, regulators tentatively granted transpacific antitrust immunity to American and JAL as well as to United, Continental and ANA.

American has said LAX expansion is part of a strategy to focus, with its Oneworld partners, on the global hubs most preferred by high-premium business travelers. "Los Angeles is the third most important travel market in the world," said American President Tom Horton, in an October 6 interview with TheStreet. "So we're looking hard at LAX -- there may be more to come."

American needs to expand in Los Angeles, said CRT Capital Group analyst Mike Derchin. "I don't think they have a choice," he said. "They have to grow Asia-Pacific organically. They need a jumping off point. They are stronger in Los Angeles than they are in San Francisco, and they are not big enough in Seattle." Moreover, United has a hub in San Francisco.

LAX is a major airport, the world's seventh largest in 2009 with 56.5 million passengers. Even so, Derchin noted, the local traffic is not sufficient to support three daily Shanghai flights, including one already operated by China Eastern. "All of these guys feed Los Angeles with traffic from other cities," he noted. That is why the startup of American's Shanghai flight is being accompanied by domestic expansion.

Even with that expansion, United will continue to dominate at LAX.

Airport year-to-date stats through August show American with a 15.8% share of departing passengers, including 14.6% for the mainline and 1.2% share for American Eagle. United has a 23% share, including 13.2% for mainline, 4.3% for partner Continental and 5.5% for SkyWest, which at LAX flies primarily for United. Meanwhile, Southwest ( LUV) has 11.5%, while Delta has 11.1%.

Among the three alliances, the October schedule shows Star with 485 international flights per week, Sky Team with 283 and Oneworld with 256. Many of the flights are to Mexico and Central America.

On the United earnings call, CEO Jeff Smisek was asked whether the industry's capacity discipline can be maintained if two U.S. airlines serve Los Angeles-Shanghai.

"When we do the analysis of going into a market, we're fully aware of the competitive nature," Smisek said. "The United presence in Los Angeles is really the best -- it is the best in the industry whether it's United alone or with Star. We have over 200 daily departures and we have more connecting opportunities than any other carrier to China through LA." Moreover, Smisek said, United is "the largest U.S. carrier in China ... the marketplace knows us very well."

In an interview, Virasb Vahidi, American chief commercial officer, said "there was an element of surprise" when United applied for Shanghai five days after the American flight was approved. But in a broader sense, he said, "It doesn't surprise us that we will have competitors -- we live in a very competitive world."

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

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