British Airways Boosts U.S. Service - New Orleans Can Thank the Boeing 787
British Airways 787-9 departs London Heathrow

British Airways, already the European carrier with the most U.S. service, is adding more U.S. destinations.

In the past two weeks, the carrier has announced Heathrow-New Orleans with a Boeing (BA) 787-8 seating 214 passengers, as well as Gatwick service to both Oakland, Calif., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., both served by Boeing 777-200s seating 275 passengers.

The new flights mean British Airways will serve all three Bay Area airports as well as four cities in Florida including Miami, Orlando and Tampa.

British Airways has a trans-Atlantic joint venture with American (AAL) , enabling the two carriers to coordinate scheduling and share revenue on the flights, but it is branching out with its new services, flying to cities where American is not the dominant carrier.

Based on 2015 passenger counts, Fort Lauderdale is the 21st largest U.S. airport, while Oakland is 36th and New Orleans is 37th. Additionally, Fort Lauderdale/Miami/West Palm Beach is the eighth-largest metropolitan area, the Bay Area is 11th largest and New Orleans is 46th.

New Orleans is getting a shot largely because of the unique capabilities of the Boeing 787. British Airways is returning to the city 34 years after it pulled out.

In 1982, the carrier ended London Gatwick-New Orleans-Mexico City service, which had operated with a Lockheed L-1011 that used New Orleans as a refueling stop. Four-times-a-week service will resume in March 2017.

Simon Brooks, senior vice president sales for British Airways, said New Orleans "is a natural choice for us for a whole raft of compelling reasons," including the availability of the 787.

"The Dreamliner makes it an easier decision," Brooks said. Additionally, in New Orleans "You are looking at conventions, cruises, leisure trips, festivals -- it's compelling for {Britains} and Europeans."

Besides the leisure opportunities, the New Orleans area economy includes sizable oil and gas and health care sectors, he said, adding, "It is a city on the rise."

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of British Airways' U.S. use of the Boeing 787 involves what happened in Austin.

The carrier began to fly the 787-8 between London Heathrow and Texas' Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in March 2014.

London became the airport's first international destination other than Mexico. No one imagined that a non-hub city as small as Austin would be able to generate enough traffic to fill a daily flight to London, even if it is a technology and cultural center and even though British Airways' partner American is the largest carrier.

Yet in October 2015, the flight stimulated enough demand that the aircraft was upgraded to a Boeing 777-200. It switched to a 787-9 in February, then used the 777-200 from April through July, and then switched back to the 787-9 in August.

While the 777-200 seats 275 passengers: the 787-9 seats 216 including eight in first class suites.

Aerospace consultant Addison Schonland said the Austin sequence shows that the 787 is a "hub-buster" because it enables airports that are not hubs to offer long-haul destinations.

"They started 787 to Austin and they got traffic they never knew existed," he said. "Then they upgraded to a 777 {and then moved to a 787-9}.

"The phenomenal thing is that the aircraft is light and therefore economically effective," Schonland said. "If you are British Airways, you get to unzip hub traffic." The same sort of effort will take place in New Orleans, he said.

By March 2017, British Airways will operate the three-class 787-8 to Baltimore and and Philadelphia, while the 787-9 will serve Austin, Boston, Houston, Newark and San Jose.

The carrier's other U.S. destinations are Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami. New York JFK, Orlando, Phoenix. San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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