Air travel to Europe is about to undergo a significant change, one that is likely to spell more choices and cheaper fares for travelers.
On March 30, the so-called open-skies agreement goes into effect, allowing airlines based in the United States and Europe to fly across the Atlantic between any two airports in each region. Before the pact, trans-Atlantic flights were governed by separate agreements between the United States and individual European nations. The pacts required airlines to take off or land in their native countries, and limited which airlines could serve certain airports.
For example, British Airways flights bound for the United States had to originate in Britain. And only two United States carriers were permitted to land at Heathrow Airport, near London: American and United.
When the open-skies agreement kicks in next week, those restrictions will be lifted, essentially letting the open market dictate all trans-Atlantic routes between the United States and Europe. For instance, Continental, Delta and Northwest will be able to serve Heathrow for the first time.
This year, San Francisco, Orlando and Washington all received their first scheduled nonstop flights to Dublin on Aer Lingus under a related transitionary arrangement. And Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, the Irish no-frills carrier, has said he plans to start a new airline that will fly from secondary European markets like Liverpool or Birmingham to a half-dozen American cities like Baltimore or Providence, R.I., for a base fare as low as 10 euros, or about $16 at $1.59 to the euro.
“We don’t even begin to get a glimmer of the possibilities of open-market competition yet,” said Jerry Chandler, who writes Cheapflights.com
’s travel blog and has been tracking the new open-skies flights. “There could be a lot of flourishing of routes in markets that currently don’t exist, especially from smaller U.S. cities to European hubs.”
The new pact is expected to be game-changing for Europe-bound travel. More routes are expected to open, and prices could fall thanks to the new competition. The agreement is also likely to encourage European carriers to compete more aggressively with one another across the Continent. Lufthansa, the German airline, for example, could set up a hub in Paris; or Air France could set up a hub in Frankfurt.
So far, though, most United States airlines are simply looking to open service to Heathrow — a strategic hub that offers connecting flights not just across Europe, but to the Middle East, Africa and Asia, too. Flights from the United States to Heathrow are expected to increase 31 percent, to 2,932 flights in July from 2,233 this month, according to OAG Back Aviation Solutions.
Northwest plans to add daily service later this year to Heathrow from Detroit, Minneapolis and Seattle. Beginning on March 29, the New York area will get four new flights a day to Heathrow: two from Continental out of Newark and two from Delta out of Kennedy Airport. Travelers in Atlanta will have a new direct flight to Heathrow aboard Delta (as opposed to connecting through Chicago or some other city), as will travelers out of Dallas-Forth Worth and Raleigh-Durham — both aboard American by March 30.
European carriers like KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are also getting into the act with new service between Dallas-Fort Worth and Heathrow. Likewise, Air France will begin operating a daily flight between Los Angeles and Heathrow on March 30. And Virgin Atlantic is starting a daily Heathrow-Chicago route and will expand its popular Heathrow-New York service to six flights daily.
For many travelers, a direct flight to Heathrow is long overdue. For instance, there are currently no nonstop flights between Dallas-Fort Worth and Heathrow, forcing many passengers to land at other London airports — like Gatwick or Luton — even if they have a connecting flight to catch in Heathrow. “It has been an absolute nightmare,” said Terry Denton, president of Main Street Travel, a Carlson Wagonlit agency in Forth Worth that specializes in missionary trips to Africa and elsewhere that usually require a connection through Heathrow.
Getting from Gatwick to Heathrow involves hauling luggage through passport control, taking a bus or cab across town and going through check-in and security anew — a process that could take three hours. The new routes will allow travelers to bypass that ordeal.
It’s not just Heathrow, however, that’s getting new service. British Airways is planning a subsidiary called OpenSkies that will skip London altogether, beginning with Brussels-New York and Paris-New York service as early as June. And some airlines, anticipating increased competition, are expanding their trans-Atlantic networks. Delta will begin flying from Kennedy Airport to Paris Orly on June 2, cutting out a three-hour-plus layover in Madrid, Nice or elsewhere.
KLM will start a daily flight between Dallas-Fort Worth and Amsterdam on March 30. Previously, Dallas passengers had to change planes in Memphis, New York or another city before arriving in Amsterdam. The new flight will cut at least two hours off the total flight time.
Besides saving time, the new competition should put pressure on airlines to reduce fares. A 2002 study by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, estimated that an open-skies agreement between the United States and the European Union would generate a 10 percent increase in passenger traffic in formerly restricted markets, which could reduce fares 4 to 10 percent.
Routes to watch include Denver-Heathrow and Seattle-Heathrow, which were previously served by only one nonstop carrier: British Airways. But thanks to the open skies agreement, United will begin flying between Denver and Heathrow on March 30, with introductory fares starting at $570 round trip for travel before May 15. British Airways, by contrast, has been offering that same route for $1,461, according to an online search.
And Northwest Airlines will start flying between Seattle and Heathrow on June 1, with fares for $1,288, compared with $1,302 on British Airways, based on a recent online search.
But don’t expect a full-on fare war just yet. With the price of fuel so high, pricing on trans-Atlantic travel has been “pretty brutal,” said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of FareCompare. “Base prices are at an all-time low, but fuel surcharges are up.”