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This ain't no podunk airport: Logan goes global!

Posted by Patrick Smith  August 20, 2013 08:28 PM

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It has been said that the real measure of a city's greatness has nothing to do with its cultural or civic institutions, its establishments of higher learning, or the prominence of any businesses or industry. No, what really counts is how many foreign cities you can fly to from its airport.

Who said such a thing? I did. Is it true? Of course not.

Not entirely, anyway. But air routes to far-flung places do lend a city a certain prestige. There's something exciting, even a touch glamorous, that comes with being able to reach some distant foreign capital directly from your home town.

From Logan, Bostonians can fly nonstop to London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Zurich, Frankfurt, and Reykjavik, among other cities.

You'll notice that list is pretty Euro-centric, and it's always been that way for Logan. But that's changing; new carriers are moving in, and BOS is branching out.

Things got going about a year ago, when Japan Airlines began began flying from Boston to Tokyo's Narita airport - the first-ever nonstop between Boston and Asia. Massport and city leaders had been coveting an Asian route for some time. Trouble was, the longer a flight is, the higher the operating costs, and the more seats an airline needs to fill in order to break even. (Boston-Tokyo is double the distance of Boston-London.)

Meanwhile, Boston isn't a terribly big city, and Logan isn't much of a hub. American Airlines had planned to begin a Tokyo flight in 2001, only to shelve it in the wake of the terror attacks. Other carriers balked, afraid of committing a long-range aircraft to a route with questionable potential.

Finally in 2012, JAL gave us a chance, launching BOS-NRT nonstops with its brand-new Boeing 787. The 787 is a medium-sized jet of modest capacity, but its outstanding per-seat fuel efficiency can make a flight like this profitable. The plane's earlier technical troubles notwithstanding, flights are full and the route seems to be thriving. I took the 787 to Narita last fall and wrote about it here.

Just last month, Panama's Copa Airlines added Boston to its network with a daily flight to Panama City - our only nonstop to mainland Latin America. Most of you probably never heard of Copa, but it's a well-respected carrier with a fleet of nearly 80 aircraft, most of them 737s. Copa operates a busy hub out of PTY, with onward connections throughout Central and South America.

(You'll notice that Copa's blue-and-gold paint scheme bears a striking resemblance to that of United, due to an earlier arrangement between Copa and Continental Airlines. Continental merged with United in 2010, and its livery was adapted fleetwide.)

BOS is also the sole US destination for little-known TACV (Transportes Aereos Cabo Verde), the national airline of Cape Verde, with three weekly nonstops between Logan and Praia, on the island of Santiago.

Similarly, we're one of only two U.S. cities served SATA, the airline of the Azores. (The other is Oakland, and it's only a seasonal, once-a-week flight.) You can fly SATA five times weekly from Logan to Ponta Delgada, on the island of Sao Miguel.

Perhaps most exciting of all, Turkish Airlines has announced it will commence daily flights between Boston and Istanbul later this year. One of the most fascinating cities on earth, Istanbul is a major tourist hub. Or flyers can connect through the city's Ataturk airport to routes throughout the Middle East, Central, and South Asia, and beyond.

Turkish is a fast-expanding airline that already flies to more countries than any other carrier in the world, and its passenger service and reliability are considered among the best in the industry. Little old Logan ought to feel proud.

I say "little old," which I hope isn't insulting. I'm just being friendly. My sentimental fondness for Logan is no secret, and if you ask me, BOS is one of the most underrated airports in the country. It's clean, well organized, and, unlike most American airports, has decent public transit connections to the city (I take the Red and Silver Lines to and from Logan all the time).

For the record, Logan places 19th nationally and 33rd globally as measured by the number of takeoffs and landings. (The size of the typical commercial plane has grown smaller, however, and nearly half of Logan's flights are operated by regional jets, so in terms of total passengers we're off the top 50.)

Granted, having a big, busy airport doesn't automatically qualify your city as world-class (whatever that means exactly). Take poor Detroit, for example. Geography, as much as anything else, determines where carriers place their hubs. But that just makes Logan's route map even more impressive, because BOS isn't an international hub for anybody. Its traffic is self-generated, not funneled in from dozens of other cities.

BOS will never be a global player the likes of JFK, Amsterdam, Heathrow, or Bangkok, but for a second-tier major airport, we're doing pretty well.

Memories of routes past

On the downside, Air Portugal (TAP) abandoned its Boston-Lisbon route several years ago after decades of operation, and TACA pulled out after its San Salvador flights did not prove profitable.

In the early 1980s, shortly before its demise, Braniff International operated a transatlantic mini-hub at Logan. Braniff's brightly colored 747s and DC-8s (Alexander Calder once hand-painted a Braniff DC-8) flew nightly to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Amsterdam. They called it the "Boston Gateway," though by most accounts it was a financial disaster, and one of the final nails in Braniff's coffin.

Northwest, which is today part of Delta, had a similar operation at BOS from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, with 747s and DC-10s flying to Amsterdam, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Glasgow, and Shannon. Today, Delta's Amsterdam service is the only surviving vestige of this network (Delta's London and Paris flights are recent additions; the Amsterdam service has been uninterrupted since its launch in, I believe,1989).

Poking elsewhere around the airline graveyard, we remember that Pan Am flew to London, and TWA to London, Paris, and Rome. Swissair took us to Zurich (the new Swiss International does the same), and Olympic Airways once connected Boston with Athens. Sabena had nonstops to Brussels.

What's still to come?

Well, how about a route to South America? We've never had one. Brazil would be the obvious choice, considering the large Brazilian population in the metro area. Easier said than done, however. The Brazilian government is extremely picky when it comes to granting air rights to and from US cities, and even with such rights, a large ethnic base does not necessarily equate to a profitable service. There might be plenty of Brazilians looking to visit family in the old country, but economy class margins are tiny, and carriers want a guarantee of strong, business-oriented premium cabin traffic (first and business class) before they'll even consider opening up a long-range route.

But who knows. Not all that long ago, places like Tokyo and Istanbul would have seemed long shots at best.

Related stories:

Planes, Pranks, and Praise

Boston to Tokyo on the 787

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of www.askthepilot.com. In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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