Not long ago, proposing a nonstop route between Atlanta and Dubai, the United Arab Emirates city known for its sculptural skyscrapers, might have gotten you laughed out of Delta Air Lines' executive offices.
Not these days, according to the route planners who are leading the Atlanta-based airline's second year of wholesale expansion overseas.
"It's not so outlandish anymore" to suggest exotic locales, said Robert Cortelyou, Delta's vice president of network planning. "We have a track record."
So when route planners presented their latest picks --- including a Dubai route announced last week --- to CEO Gerald Grinstein and other top executives for final approval, it was "really just a formality," added Glen Hauenstein, Delta's executive vice president for network and revenue management.
"I think the beauty of this management team is we have a lot of trust in each other," said Hauenstein, hired 18 months ago from rival Continental Airlines.
That trust is being put to a test as Delta counts on new overseas routes to help power its recovery effort. It has added or announced more than 50 new international routes in the year since filing for bankruptcy court protection. The goal is to catch up with rivals that get about 40 percent of their revenue from overseas. Delta, whose percentage was half that a year ago, expects to hit 35 percent this fall.
Next spring, Delta rolls out several new Atlanta routes, including Dubai; Prague, Czech Republic; Seoul, South Korea; and Vienna, Austria. The airline will also add flights from New York's Kennedy airport to Bucharest, Romania, and to the northern Italy cities of Florence and Pisa.
While most of the new markets are conventional picks, one of the challenges is to select those that aren't too heavily covered by competitors. So many of Delta's new routes are to destinations where no other U.S. carrier flies nonstop, including most of its recent trans-Atlantic additions.
Like "value" investors who hope to unearth gold in overlooked stocks, Delta is targeting destinations in emerging economies such as Bucharest and Dubai because they are fast-growing and potentially lucrative.
Dubai is the second-largest Middle East destination, after Tel Aviv, Israel, according to Delta, but Emirates Air is the only carrier that offers nonstop service, to New York. Bucharest ranks only 37th among trans-Atlantic destinations in terms of passengers, but Delta said it is the largest market that has neither a flag carrier nor nonstop service to the United States.
"We think the first one there gets it," said Hauenstein.
So far this year, Delta has opened 11 new trans-Atlantic routes and dozens more to Latin America. They included second-tier destinations such as the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and Dusseldorf, a German industrial city.
Later this fall, Delta is venturing into Africa with flights to Johannesburg, South Africa; Dakar, Senegal; and Accra, Ghana. It's also seeking rights to fly to China.
Andreas Renner, who runs Delta's eight-person department in charge of coming up with international route ideas and plans, said the carrier's success with its Atlanta-Moscow route launched last year emboldened the team to look at other emerging markets. Within a few months, the jets to Moscow were flying 80 percent full even in winter, he said.
The team began scouring traffic data for destinations that draw heavy traffic by charter airlines and business jets, but have little or no nonstop service by commercial airlines.
Delta is still expanding on more traditional routes as well, he said.
For example, Delta is beefing up its service to London's Gatwick Airport, the fourth-largest trans-Atlantic market in terms of passengers, with a daily flight from New York next month and a second flight in April. The addition complements London service Delta already has from its Atlanta and Cincinnati hubs.
Delta is launching new nonstop routes to several European destinations.
Delta Air Lines Inc. said Friday that it received the final U.S. approval needed to begin nonstop service on 11 routes to Europe and the Middle East.
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