D/FW Airport Seeks Global Carriers for Meaningful Relationships

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.

Mr. Lopano and Mr. Salinas planned to handle Air China Cargo, to continue a conversation started during the golf outing. D/FW had already met with executives in Beijing, and early signals from airline officials suggested their presentations would be on target.

"We know they have aircraft to expand," Mr. Lopano said.

On Monday, the group gathered in the hotel lobby shortly before 7 a.m., piled into taxis and headed to the show a full 90 minutes before meetings started to allow time for final preparations.

At the Bella Center, the team quickly went to work, ducking under tables to connect power adapters, switching on the flat-panel TV screens and booting up notebook computers.

Most airports at the conference sought to distinguish themselves with a flash of local color.

The display for Stockholm's airport, for example, was brightly lighted and furnished with contemporary designs. A soundtrack dominated by Abba, the Swedish pop group from the 1970s, pulsed through the booth.

Most airports offered some type of giveaway -- pens, candy, foam balls. A local airport offered Lego-shaped chocolate, a souvenir of the iconic Danish toy. A booth from Romania offered a chance to win a decorative egg or carpet, both made at the show.

D/FW secured a private suite with a separate conference room and had stacks of colorful T-shirts and copies of a marketing DVD that was playing on a loop on one of the TVs.

As he prepared for the show, Mr. Lopano methodically practiced tabbing through the PowerPoint presentations and tested the sound for the DVD that would cap each session.

He struggled with plastic headphone cases before ditching them because time was too short for possible fumbles.

Mr. Cox sat with his eyes closed, mentally running through the details of his first presentation -- to Air France.

"I won't look at any others until after that, because I don't want to confuse myself," he said.

D/FW has direct service to only four European destinations, and only Lufthansa's service to Frankfurt connects passengers to a major global hub.

"Europe is truly a pent-up market," Mr. Cox said. "The more connections we have, the more traffic we can feed."

Shortly after 8 a.m., delegates began to filter into the suite.

"Word on the street is you have T-shirts," said Jeff Meyer, JetBlue Airways' schedule planning manager.

Mr. Lopano slowly thumbed through a stack of T-shirts and maneuvered the conversation to business.

"So when are we going to get some of your Embraers?" he asked casually.

Mr. Meyer smiled. "It's no secret we're interested in Texas," he said.

"Well, we already have your name on a jet bridge," Mr. Lopano joked.

JetBlue isn't on the schedule, so Mr. Lopano made plans to meet informally later.

The casual interaction was brief, but it reinforced a multiyear relationship the airport has cultivated with the low-cost airline from New York. Shortly after 9 a.m., Michele Barre, Air France's director of long-haul network planning arrived, and the D/FW team made casual chit-chat.

"Did you beat Joe at golf yesterday?" Mr. Cox asked.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Ms. Barre replied.

Standing in the conference room, Mr. Cox quickly moved through an overview of the airport's recent growth, then passed the remote control to Mr. Lopano to run through more specific details on why Air France should resume its D/FW-to-Paris service.

Air France launched service at D/FW in May 2001 and immediately captured 10 percent of the market to Paris. The service ended a few months later, a victim of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the economic recession.

Lufthansa would be the carrier's only major rival, so Mr. Lopano played up that angle.

"Frankfurt doesn't have the hub Charles de Gaulle has," he said, referring to Paris' primary airport. "We think you have much more opportunity now."

Moving through international market demand, Mr. Lopano strategically moved the laser pointer to passenger data on Tehran.

"We just launched Tehran," Ms. Barre said. "Did you know that?"

"Yes, and did you see Bombay?" Mr. Lopano asked, pointing to the available customer base for the city, now known as Mumbai.

Ms. Barre left the D/FW team on an encouraging note.

"You're on the list," she said.

A meeting that afternoon with Lufthansa, which has operated daily service to its Frankfurt hub for 22 years, similarly offered hope for new service to Munich, where it has a rapidly growing operation.

"Are we on the list?" Mr. Lopano asked.

"Most definitely," replied Stephan Kreuzpaintner, Lufthansa's manager of network planning.

While the most coveted appointments allow the airport to make detailed business pitches for specific routes, airport executives know to stay flexible and plant seeds wherever they can.

One unexpected visitor to D/FW's suite was Virgin Nigeria, a new carrier jointly owned by Nigerian investors and Virgin Atlantic that mentioned at the conference that it's considering a Texas route.

"I whipped up a presentation for them," said Sharon McLoskey, assistant vice president for marketing services at D/FW.

"This is called thinking on your feet," Mr. Cox said, tabbing quickly through the slide show and suggesting minor changes.

Speed is also the key to the 20-minute sessions, which run concurrently with the longer meetings.

Sitting opposite two officials from Qatar Airways, Mr. Lopano made quick introductions before heading into his standard presentation, which began with a map of the U.S., highlighting Texas.

Richard Roberts, Qatar Airways' general manager of corporate planning, asked Mr. Lopano what's driving growth at D/FW.

"There's tremendous business going to the Middle East and India," Mr. Lopano said on cue.

He pushed through the presentation, emphasizing growth to regions Qatar Airways serves.

"Where are they connecting?" Mr. Roberts asked.

"Mostly Frankurt now, but we need more connections," Mr. Lopano said.

Mr. Roberts said Qatar is considering buying Airbus A-340s, which could fly nonstop between Qatar and Texas. "Houston and Dallas are interesting routes, but I'm not sure which comes first," he said.

With the 20-minute time limit coming to a close, Mr. Lopano compared various travel times, suggesting that Dallas would offer faster connections than Houston.

"You have to see the new terminal," he said, standing up and shaking hands.

Inside the suite, some visitors were enthusiastic about reconnecting with Mr. Lopano or Ai-Phuong Dang, a D/FW vice president, both of whom had long careers with airlines before shifting to the airport side.

Zhao Xiao Song, a vice president at China Southern Airlines Co. came bounding into the suite holding a flier promoting the free D/FW T-shirt.

"You know, we're going to be out there early next year. Can we meet with you?" Mr. Lopano asked, handing him a shirt that said: "We can land an A380. Got anything bigger?"

Mr. Song agreed, then smiled when he saw the shirt's message.

"We just ordered five" of the mammoth Airbus jets, he said.

Does all the schmoozing pay off?

A visit with Spirit Airlines of Miramar, Fla., demonstrated the payoff from years of nurturing.

Victoria Moreland, who heads scheduling for Spirit, sat in the reception area of the D/FW suite, sipping coffee and laughing with airport officials before shifting to the conference room.

Only a few weeks before, the low-cost airline announced service between D/FW and its hub in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., starting next January. The carrier specializes in serving the Caribbean and Mexico

"I just couldn't say no to Joe [Lopano] anymore," Ms. Moreland joked.

The chatter subtly moved to business. Ms. Moreland casually mentioned a recent government agreement that opens several popular Mexican destinations to additional service.

"We have a lot of vacationers in D-FW," said Mr. Salinas, the airport board member.

Last week, D/FW found out what Ms. Moreland was hinting about. Spirit applied for government permission to start service in January between D/FW and Cancun, Mexico.

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