By Mateen Kontoravdis
Austin Welcomes New Airlines, Prepares for Record-Breaking Capacity
Austin landed another high-profile route this week when Virgin Atlantic announced its plans to connect the Texas capital with London Heathrow. The new year-round service will commence on May 25 and operate four times weekly. This marks the first new U.S. route for Virgin Atlantic since 2015. The airline currently serves 10 U.S. cities from its Heathrow hub.
Virgin Atlantic will deploy its Boeing 787-9 on the new service. The aircraft features 31 Upper Class seats in the business cabin, 35 premium economy seats and 192 economy seats. The new flight will operate on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Juha Jarvinen, Chief Commercial Officer at Virgin Atlantic, said, “The U.S. has been our heartland for more than 37 years since our first flight to New York City in 1984. Since U.S. borders opened to U.K. travellers on Nov. 8, it feels extra special to be launching new flying, especially to the fantastic city of Austin.”
The airline’s new service will serve as the carrier’s first foray into the Texas market. In a state that is dominated by expansive Oneworld and Star Alliance networks in Dallas and Houston, Austin remains a battleground city.
As the city shapes into the ‘Silicon Hills,’ with companies such as Tesla, Oracle, and Apple establishing a significant footprint, various airlines have expanded their networks to accommodate Austin’s growth and demand for non-stop flights. While Virgin Atlantic is not a member of the SkyTeam Alliance, the airline participates in a joint venture with Delta Air Lines and Air France-KLM.
Passengers traveling from the U.K. to Austin onboard Virgin Atlantic will be able to connect to 10 additional U.S. cities on board Delta. Business class travelers will also have access to the recently opened Delta Sky Club in Austin.
Virgin Atlantic also notes that its 787-9 will offer 20 tons of cargo space on each flight. The airline says that, “This fast cargo service will offer new opportunities for companies looking to export and import goods such as high-tech products and e-commerce between prime markets in the U.K. and U.S.”
Saying Howdy with a Partner
Virgin Atlantic’s entry into Austin will come just two months after its joint venture partner KLM adds service to Amsterdam. The Dutch airline first announced flights to Austin in 2019 and expected to fly the inaugural flight during spring 2020. Following a nearly two-year delay due to the pandemic, KLM is set to commence Austin flights on March 28.
The airline will fly the new route on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays using a 294-seat Boeing 787-9. The aircraft features 30 business class seats, 48 economy plus seats and 216 economy seats. The flight is timed to offer expansive KLM connection opportunities in Amsterdam for passengers.
Austin will mark KLM’s third Texas destination. This route is also operated as part of the joint venture between Delta, Air France-KLM and Virgin Atlantic. The airline also flies to Dallas (DFW) and Houston (IAH) from its Amsterdam hub.
Familiar Competition, New Players
British Airways first offered nonstop flights between Austin and Heathrow in 2013 when it utilized its then-new Boeing 787-8 to connect a medium-size U.S. city with its U.K. hub. The airline was the exclusive option for nonstop flights to London until 2018.
Following the success of British Airways, Norwegian began offering seasonal service between Austin and London Gatwick in spring 2018. Despite the competition, both airlines found success. During the summer 2019 season, British Airways averaged an 88% load factor and Norwegian averaged 91% in Austin according to Cirium data.
Virgin Atlantic will serve the same airport as British Airways and offer multiple amenities that Norwegian did not such as a business class product and the opportunity to redeem tickets and earn miles through the airline’s loyalty program or its joint venture partners.
Since Norwegian’s exit, a lot has changed in the aviation industry as a result of the pandemic. While historical traffic data shows that the Austin-London market can support two players, it remains to be seen what transatlantic demand will look like in 2022 and beyond.
Airport Reaches Record Transatlantic, Terminal Capacity
With the addition of two new airlines, passengers traveling between Austin and Europe will have access to a record number of seats. During the June 1 to Aug. 31 summer travel period, four airlines will offer over 70,000 direct transatlantic seats to Austin. This marks a 24% increase over summer 2019, the previous busiest year for transatlantic traffic.
During summer 2019, British Airways, Norwegian and Lufthansa collectively averaged an 85% load factor on their Austin flights according to Cirium data. Since the airport first saw transatlantic flights in 2013 with British Airways, Austin’s summer transatlantic capacity has grown 270%.
As we inch closer to summer 2022, British Airways will upgrade its Austin service to the 331-seat Airbus A350-1000 on Feb. 28. The airline will also transition from five weekly flights to daily service on April 24.
Lufthansa will also resume flights on March 2, ahead of SXSW. The airline will return to Austin with five weekly flights using a 255-seat Airbus A330-300.
Prior to shuttering its long-haul unit, Norwegian announced plans to serve Paris with seasonal flights during summer 2020. While this route was never launched, the airport’s international incentive program lists Amsterdam, Beijing, Dublin, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo as high-priority routes as of Jan. 2021.
With the increase in service, the airport will handle up to four back-to-back and simultaneous wide-body flights on Mondays. A media spokesperson for Austin-Bergstrom confirmed to AirlineGeeks that the airport can currently handle three simultaneous wide-body aircraft and that there are no short-term plans to increase this capacity.
Nonstop Growth All-Around
While new long-haul flights make big headlines, the airport has continued to welcome new domestic and international flights throughout the pandemic. Austin secured a non-stop flight to Hawaiian in late 2020 and welcomed 24 new American Airlines routes throughout 2021. Southwest, Austin’s long-time largest airline, recently announced seven new destinations to defend against competitors and JSX recently joined in the airport’s busiest domestic route.
This summer, ten airlines will offer up to 14-peak day international departures to destinations including Liberia, Puerto Vallarta, and Cozumel. Five airlines including American, JetBlue, Spirit, Sun Country and Southwest will offer flights to Cancun.
With both domestic and international route expansions, space inside the Barbara Jordan terminal is quickly running out. The airport regularly sees lengthy TSA lines during peak hours and airlines are constrained on gate space to allow for further schedule growth.
The airport’s 2040 master plan calls for a new midfield concourse, but the terminal won’t be open until at least 2025. In the short-term, the airport is focused on optimizing the infrastructure in the Barbara Jordan terminal.
A fourth TSA checkpoint with three lanes was opened in Dec. 2021. The airport is also currently optimizing Gate 13, the ground-level regional jet hold room, to allow for remote hardstand operations on the east end of the terminal. The three bus gates will come online later this year, but it’s unclear which airlines will utilize them. Ultimately, the airport plans to create up to six hardstand operations positions on the east apron.
For a more long-term solution, the airport is increasing its gate capacity by adding three new permanent gates on the west side of the Barbara Jordan terminal. No open date has been provided, but project construction is expected to last into 2023.
Austin-Bergstrom’s development team will also create an improved space for ticket counters and is working with airline partners to bring in new touch-less and self-service technologies for bag check and flight check-in, according to an airport spokesperson. Construction on a new baggage handling system will also begin this year, increasing the number of bags the airport can process.
The airport will host a virtual meeting on Jan. 29 to give community members an update about the master plan and a new fuel facility.
As the city continues to grow, the airport is expected to follow. As of now, eight new routes are expected to launch prior to the summer season.
AirlineGeeks’ Mateen Kontoravdis and Charlotte Seet contributed to this story.