American Airlines launches service to Madrid today


May 1--American Airlines launches new service to Madrid from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport today, a rare new flight that comes despite a major slowdown in international passenger traffic.

The new route is pegged on hopes that government regulators will approve American's proposal for immunity from antitrust laws on trans-Atlantic flights with Spanish carrier Iberia as well as British Airways. If approved, American and Iberia will be able to coordinate schedules, marketing and operations on flights between their hubs in a way that federal law currently prohibits. For American's passengers, it could also mean easier connections through Madrid to cities in Italy, France, the northern coast of Africa and the Middle East.

"Madrid is one of the best connecting airports in the world," said Henry Joyner, American's senior vice president of planning, noting that Madrid's Barajas Airport recently built a new terminal and runway.

Texas first lady Anita Perry is leading a trade delegation to Madrid on today's inaugural flight.

Airport officials estimate that the route will generate up to $100 million in annual economic activity in the region.

"I think this is really going to enhance the economic connectivity of both regions," said Kent Wittman, Dallas city president of BBVA Compass. That bank, originally known as Compass Bancshares, was acquired by Spanish bank BBVA in 2007.

Compass officials routinely travel between North Texas and Madrid, Wittman said, and the nonstop route will make the trip shorter and more convenient.

But the flight could be a tough sell, at least right now. Airlines have seen a steep drop in international passengers this year as the economy sagged, with corporations slashing their travel budgets and leisure travelers canceling vacations.

But Joyner said the Madrid route is an opportunity to draw more passengers, even as demand slips. The flight will make D/FW the westernmost gateway to Spain, while Spanish passengers can connect at D/FW to American's network nationwide.

The key to the route's success is winning exemption from antitrust rules. While American and Iberia are partners in the Oneworld airline alliance, they are prohibited from coordinating their schedules to make connections easier, and cooperation on fares, frequent-flier benefits and marketing is limited.

American applied for immunity last year but ran into a roadblock after several members of Congress and also some consumer groups expressed concerns that it could be bad for consumers. American's unions oppose it because it could affect jobs.

Earlier this week, the Department of Transportation officially opened the request for comments from the public, which started a six-month timetable for a decision.