Filling D/FW's Terminal D With Int'l Passengers Considered Top Priority

An American Eagle jet takes off near D/FW's new Terminal D. The regional carrier provides service to Mexico.

Foreign carriers are already using D/FW's new Terminal D. American Airlines will move in next month.

Joe Lopano, D/FW's executive vice president of marketing, says filling Terminal D with international passengers is a "top priority."

Joe Lopano was in Shanghai five years ago, extolling the virtues of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to the chief executive of China Eastern Airlines in a bid to win new flights to the region.

"He interrupted me, and asked if the airport was in Colorado," said Lopano, the airport's executive vice president of marketing. "It shows the challenge you sometimes face in educating people about D/FW."

North Texas' low international profile, compared with cities like New York and Chicago, is one of many challenges officials face as they labor to attract new flights to foreign destinations.

The airport's international reach is also affected -- both good and bad -- by geography, local demographics, the financial condition of the airline industry, and its major tenant, American Airlines.

But airport officials say they can't afford to lose despite the obstacles.

Expanding service to foreign cities is crucial for D/FW's brand new, $1.2 billion international terminal, which opened last month. The terminal was designed to quickly process passengers traveling to and from foreign countries. Foreign carriers are using it now; American is scheduled to move in next month.

Airport officials have an ambitious vision. They have targeted dozens of cities worldwide for new service, ranging from Auckland, New Zealand, on the other side of the globe, to Monclova, Mexico, just across the border. Although many travelers in the new terminal will initially be on domestic flights, airport officials hope to eventually fill the 2 million-square-foot facility entirely with international passengers.

"It's a top priority," Lopano said.

Nonetheless, the airport clearly has some catching up to do. Although No. 3 in the world in total takeoffs and landings, D/FW lags behind many other U.S. airports in international service, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The airport in January 2005 ranked 10th in total passengers on international routes, behind smaller airports like Miami, Houston Bush and Newark Liberty, according to the latest government data.

Snaring a substantial amount of service won't be easy. Flights to many countries are governed by international treaties, with new routes added only after years of negotiations.

And although major U.S. airlines have been beefing up international service, much of that growth remains focused on the traditional gateway cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

But some progress has been made. About 5.6 million international passengers are expected to fly from D/FW this year, up nearly 10 percent from last year and ahead of pre-9-11 levels, according to airport statistics.

And in the past year, the airport has gained service to six new foreign markets: Osaka, Japan, and five cities in Mexico.

Experts say new aircraft technology, demographic changes and North Texas growth patterns could help the airport eventually realize its aspiration of becoming a true international gateway.

Lopano provided a list of 37 more cities airport officials hope to eventually serve, in nations including Mexico, China, Iceland and the United Arab Emirates.

One top priority: Convincing Spanish carrier Iberia Airlines to connect D/FW and Madrid. "We think that would be a very good market for us," he said.

But most caution that the ambitious growth plan won't come overnight.

"In the long run, I expect D/FW to catch up with some of the other big airports," said Alan Sbarra, an aviation consultant with Roach and Sbarra Airline Consulting in San Francisco. "But it will probably take some time."

Historically, one of D/FW's chief problems in attracting flights to Europe and Asia has been geography. Flights from either coast are shorter, making service to cities like New York and San Francisco easier.

Even today, of the top 10 airports for international service, only three -- Chicago, Houston and D/FW -- are in the nation's center.

D/FW does have one geographic advantage, and that's on flights to Latin America. But the airport's largest tenant, American Airlines, already operates a Latin American hub in Miami.

"Miami is a special case, it's the capital of Latin America," Sbarra said. "American can tap into an enormous business and leisure market by flying out of that city."

So there is little advantage for American to connect passengers to Latin America through D/FW, he said.

Miami, in fact, is American's No. 1 international airport. The airline flew more than twice as many passengers to foreign destinations from Miami than D/FW in January 2005, the most recent statistics available, according to the Transportation Department.

Houston, meanwhile, has become the primary Texas gateway to the region, largely because Continental Airlines flies most of its Latin American routes from its hub at Bush.

"Both Houston and Miami have become the major Latin American gateways," said Mike Boyd, an airline consultant with the Boyd Group of Evergreen, Colo. Both of those cities also have larger Hispanic populations, Boyd noted, which provides strong local demand for travel as well.

In Houston, 12 foreign carriers offer service, and 34 fly out of Miami. Seven serve D/FW.

Chicago, meanwhile, was chosen by American for its first nonstop flight to China, which will debut next year. American chose that city in part because it can fly the route north, over the polar region, into Asia. From D/FW, the same flight would be much longer.

American also recently added service to Delhi, India, from Chicago.

The airline continues to fly more international flights from D/FW than Chicago, where it operates a smaller hub. But Chicago overall is a much larger international airport compared with D/FW, ranked fourth in the nation according to the Transportation Department, with overseas service by numerous foreign and domestic carriers.

D/FW officials are determined to change that. They point to a 10 percent increase in international service over the past five years.

A host of new cities have been added during the past year. They are largely in Mexico but include Osaka, the second-largest city in Japan. Mexicana Airlines began service from two cities this summer.

Much of the growth to Mexico has been driven by the growing Hispanic population, said Lisa Bailey, a spokeswoman for American Eagle, American Airlines' regional affiliate.

Eagle operates many of the new flights to smaller Mexican cities.

"The Hispanic community has an ever-increasing economic influence, and they're an important customer base," she said. "There is a lot of support locally to expand service to Mexico."

Some routes, such as TorreĆ³n and San Luis Potosi, are also getting a lot of business traffic, she said.

Mexico isn't the only growth region. German carrier Lufthansa is the largest foreign carrier at D/FW, and it has seen strong growth locally, said Karl Lehman, the airline's sales manager for the southern United States.

"The last few years are the best we've ever had in this market," said Lehman, who is based in Dallas. He said growth has been pushed by business demand for flights to India, Asia and the Middle East by such area companies as Texas Instruments, Perot Systems and Exxon Mobil.

Lufthansa has a daily flight to its hub in Frankfurt, Germany, and can connect passengers to cities worldwide from there.

The strength of the hub also works for D/FW, officials here say.

The airport's status as American's largest U.S. hub is a major selling point to foreign carriers that partner with American in the eight-airline Oneworld alliance.

For example, the much-coveted Iberia, which is an alliance member, could fly passengers from Madrid to D/FW, then connect them to American flights to cities across the nation. The same seamless connection could work with Irish carrier Aer Lingus, Chilean airline Lan, Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific and others.

Europe and Asia are also closer than ever, thanks to new aircraft technology. The latest generation of planes can fly much longer trips, making destinations across the Atlantic and Pacific more feasible.

American officials have hinted that D/FW could be the starting point for a nonstop flight to China sometime in the next few years. The airline is lobbying for permission to launch new service under a new aviation treaty, and have named D/FW as a potential city.

Consultant Boyd even envisioned a time when D/FW could be a stopping point between Asia and Latin America.

"American Airlines has huge ambitions in Asia, and it already is a major player in Latin America," he said. "D/FW is the logical point for American to connect travelers between them."

A passenger could board in Shanghai, he said, fly nonstop to D/FW, then connect to a flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

D/FW has also seen growth in international cargo service, with nonstop cargo flights to China, Hong Kong and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Since 1993, the airport's international cargo service has more than tripled.

That can help boost international passenger service, Lopano said, because the cargo runs foster business ties between the cities and spur demand for new commercial flights.

One of those success stories? China Eastern, the airline whose chief didn't realize that D/FW was in Texas. After three years of lobbying, the airline agreed to begin nonstop cargo service to Shanghai.

"They figured us out and realized this was a good place for them to be," Lopano said. "And we're confident others will make the same decision."

In the Know

The top 10 airports, ranked by number of passengers flying to international destinations in January 2005.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press