Jul. 20--Northwest Airlines is making it easier for travelers to fly to Europe this year -- though Twin Cities travelers will have to connect through another city first.
Fresh from bankruptcy and itching to grow, the airline is initiating or adding several international routes -- mostly to Europe -- to boost revenue and profits amid a flagging domestic market.
Next year, passengers are likely to see more flights to London -- to Heathrow airport -- with the help of Northwest partner KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Consumers also can expect to see more Asian routes as China opens its skies to foreign airlines.
All U.S. network carriers, feeling squeezed in many domestic markets by low-cost rivals, are looking to generate more revenue from international business, said Ray Neidl, an airline analyst for Calyon Securities in New York. Asia and Europe-to-Asia are two of the biggest and fastest-growing markets.
Eagan-based Northwest's international expansion began in May, with the addition of a second Detroit-Frankfurt flight, which was suspended this week. Since then, the airline also has started daily nonstop service from Detroit to Dusseldorf, Germany, and to Brussels, Belgium. It's also begun flying nonstop from Hartford, Conn., to Amsterdam and added a fifth Detroit-Amsterdam flight. This past Sunday, it added a second Boston-Amsterdam flight.
By the end of the year, Northwest also will resume daily nonstop flights from Osaka, Japan, to Saipan.
Other carriers, including American, Continental and Southwest airlines, are adding more flights to Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. Delta and United airlines are expanding to popular Middle Eastern destinations such as Dubai and Qatar.
U.S. airlines carried 4.5 percent more international passengers versus 1.9 percent more domestic passengers in the first four months of this year compared with 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Airlines can make more money from international flights than domestic routes. They don't face the aggressive competition from U.S. low-cost carriers and can charge higher prices to customers who choose comfort in larger first-class and business-class sections. In addition, it costs less to fly a jet a long distance than to fly a small regional plane on a short trip, which is less fuel-efficient.
John Pincavage, president of an industry consulting firm in Westport, Conn., noted that airlines may be expanding to markets where competition is limited. Some markets, such as in Europe and China, are changing as those governments open restricted routes to new rivals.
"What I think you're seeing is that all of these airlines are attempting to establish a foothold so people identify them with the market before things change," Pincavage said.
At Northwest, revenue from trans-Atlantic operations increased 23 percent in the three months ended March 31, while trans-Pacific revenue increased 12 percent. Domestic revenue, meanwhile, increased just 3.4 percent. Domestic operations accounted for nearly two-thirds of $2.2 billion in passenger revenue for the period.
Historically, Northwest has been a leader in the Pacific, where it began flying 60 years ago and now has one of the world's largest Pacific networks based out of Tokyo. Northwest and United are the only two U.S. carriers to enjoy extensive flying rights from Japan.
Northwest hasn't been as strong on the Atlantic side, where it faced stiff East Coast competition before settling on Detroit as a jumping-off point for Europe, analyst Neidl said. Since 1993, a joint venture with Dutch carrier KLM has given Northwest the European coverage it needed, he said.
Northwest, which emerged from bankruptcy on May 31, is flying the new routes with 757-200 planes that seat 160 to 182 passengers. None of the flights originate in the Twin Cities, which means Minnesotans must connect through another city first.
Northwest has said the Detroit hub is "positioned favorably to serve Western Europe" given a range of about 3,100 miles for a 757 with winglets. From Chicago, for example, the same plane would be limited to Britain.
Northwest Chief Executive Doug Steenland said in May that the airline might add nonstop service from the Twin Cities to China or Europe with new Boeing 787 jets, which start arriving next year. Northwest spokesman Dean Breest said the Twin Cities will see some new nonstop international routes, but he couldn't elaborate as to when or where.
Northwest, the fifth-largest U.S. airline by traffic, this week asked the Transportation Department for permission to fly nonstop between its Detroit hub and both Shanghai and Beijing "as soon as possible." The airline is "ready to start flying right away" if the Transportation Department reverses its policy and opts to award the Aug. 1 service to a carrier that already flies to China, Executive Vice President Neal Cohen said.
Last year, the carrier lost a bid for a new China route to United Airlines, which began Washington, D.C.-Beijing service in March.
Sheryl Jean can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5576.
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