D/FW Airport Seeks Global Carriers for Meaningful Relationships

Over three days, the D/FW officials engaged in a frenzied marathon of laser-focused sales pitches -- with DVD presentations in 10 languages.

Oct. 9--COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Every courtship has a moment of truth.

For executives at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, that moment came in a Copenhagen convention center, and Finnair was the object of their affections.

Fly into D/FW, the airport team urged. Tap into American Airlines' largest hub. Grab some of those business-class passengers at local units of Scandinavian telecom giants Nokia and Ericsson.

"We think the timing is right," said Joe Lopano, D/FW's executive vice president of marketing.

Finnair scheduler Eero Laks was impressed but said his first priority was in Asia. "It won't be before 2010," he replied.

So goes the high-stakes mating dance between airports and airlines -- a ritual that blends patience, research and salesmanship for airports' eagerly sought prize of new air service.

The Dallas Morning News had a rare chance to observe the process up close at the annual Routes conference, one of the leading international aviation events, where 275 airlines considered pitches for new service from more than 500 airports across the globe.

Over three days, the D/FW officials engaged in a frenzied marathon of laser-focused sales pitches -- with DVD presentations in 10 languages. Fueled by strong coffee and Coke, they joked, traded shop talk and compared notes with scores of carriers and other airports.

Some sessions, like the one with Finnair, proved disappointing. But like a plucky suitor, the D/FW team's deflation didn't last long.

A few minutes later, the process started again with Emirates, a fast-growing carrier based in Dubai.

And the airport team left for home with hopeful signals from Air France, Lufthansa and others.

In general, it takes years to woo an airline.

A single international route typically requires its own aircraft. And at around $200 million per plane, it's a decision that won't be made based on who's got the best tchotchkes.

Like a big industry mixer, Routes offers airports a chance to visit with airline executives who might otherwise not even consider a meeting.

The airports sometimes have as little as 20 minutes to capture an airline's interest.

"It's like speed-dating," said Kevin Cox, D/FW's chief operating officer.

"The people you think will love you tell you 'Maybe later," and the ones you don't think will like you want more," he said.

Attracting new routes is critical for D/FW, which in July opened its $1.7 billion international Terminal D with lots of available capacity. Although D/FW is the world's third-busiest airport, its global nonstop reach is limited, serving only four cities in Europe and three in Asia.

Planning for the Routes conference began months in advance with extensive market research about passenger traffic trends across the globe.

For example, a pitch to Air France mentioned Terminal D, the new Skylink train and the strength of the North Texas economy, but it was also filled with details about how many people might connect through the carrier's Paris hub to Mumbai, India; Tehran, Iran; or Lagos, Nigeria.

"We have passengers that need and want to get there," Mr. Cox said, a message he would repeat countless times to other airlines. "Right now, it's not easy to do."

The conference began that Sunday, with golf and an opening reception. Scheduled meetings were held Monday and Tuesday.

On Sunday, the D/FW crew was busy setting up the suite at the Bella Center and testing equipment. Some played golf with airline executives.

They regrouped in the early evening and ran through the schedule, assigning meetings and deciding which of the two D/FW board members, Santiago Salinas and Lillie Biggins, would accompany them.

At Routes, there are two types of meetings -- 20-minute appointments in the open conference hall or 45-minute meetings in a private suite.

Shorter presentations are meant to generate interest in future meetings. Longer sessions allow D/FW officials to dig deeper into opportunities.

Air France and Lufthansa had 45-minute meetings Monday; the Finnair session was set for Tuesday.

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