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 Sunday, 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.
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
"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 US 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 US 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 Saturday, 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 Sunday.
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For many travelers, a direct flight to Heathrow is long overdue. 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 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 Sunday. 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.
The new competition should also 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 Sunday, 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.
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."