US Airways' Heathrow flights start March 29

US Airways announced yesterday that it would start flying March 29 between Philadelphia and London's Heathrow Airport, its first service to Europe's leading international connecting hub.

The airline plans to also continue fights between Philadelphia International Airport and London Gatwick Airport, the route it has had for a decade, spokesman Philip Gee said. US Airways will compete on the Heathrow route with British Airways, which flies twice-daily round-trips from Philadelphia.

Separately, US Airways said it had ordered seven more long-range Airbus 330 jets that will be capable of flying nonstop to Asia from Philadelphia. The jets are in addition to 92 Airbus jets it ordered last year. Five of the A330s will come direct from manufacturer Airbus S.A.S. and two from International Lease Finance Corp.

London's Heathrow Airport has been a highly sought-after, and controversial, facility for close to 20 years, with access from the United States limited to four airlines: British Airways P.L.C., Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., American Airlines and United Airlines. US Airways and other U.S. carriers gained the right to offer service to Heathrow with the signing of a new U.S.-British "open skies" agreement earlier this year.

Many business travelers prefer Heathrow to London's other airports because it is closer to the city's West End and because of the ample connections to other international flights. Other U.S. airlines previously announced plans to move flights from Gatwick to Heathrow.

The airline made the announcement about 10 days after it had complained that a lack of international gates in Philadelphia could force it to shelve plans for a new Beijing-Philadelphia route and possibly other European destinations. It contends that it does not have enough international gates at the airport since city officials allowed Delta Air Lines Inc. to move into Terminal A-East, which is used by both domestic and overseas carriers.

The threat irked some local officials and infuriated Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), who had lobbied on the airline's behalf for the China routes.

It was unclear how US Airways intended to fit the additional London flight into the gate configuration it already has portrayed as strained.

US Airways Group Inc. president Scott Kirby, in a statement, said the airline had not made any additional decisions about other international service out of Philadelphia.

Last week, US Airways said it would honor a request by Mayor-elect Michael Nutter to hold off on a decision about the China route until Nutter had a chance to study the issue and talk to airport officials. Last summer, US Airways had access to 17 international gates in Terminals A-East and A-West and operated 20 daily flights to Europe.

Philadelphia has had Heathrow flights by U.S. airlines twice in the past: From the 1960s to the early 1990s by Trans World Airlines, and for less than 12 months in 1994 and 1995 by American Airlines. After starting the service with great fanfare, American abruptly quit the route when it signed a marketing and service agreement with British Airways.

US Airways' Philadelphia-London Heathrow service would likely be the last one of the day to Europe from Philadelphia. The flight is to depart Philadelphia at 10:45 p.m., arriving at 11:05 a.m. the next day. Returning, it is scheduled to leave Heathrow at 12:50 p.m. and arrive in Philadelphia at 4 p.m.