Transatlantic Bounce Back Becomes a Boing!

Western Europe to the United States of America was one of the first long-haul markets to recover post-pandemic. A combination of family connections, Florida thrill seekers, London shoppers, and even modest business travel saw most airlines adding flights back as soon as possible. For many, crossing the Atlantic is no longer a “long-haul” but a chance to binge on a Netflix series and avoid the wi-fi; how times change and so does the market...

Busiest Ever Summer Season

This summer season will see a record number of flights between Western Europe and the United States – as the table below highlights, the market is back with quite a bounce or a boing back to recovery! Quite remarkable given it is less than three years since Covid-19 destroyed the market.

Summer 2023 will see over 111,400 scheduled flights from Western Europe to the United States, the equivalent of 530 a day, and hopefully a similar amount heading back in the opposite direction each day.

A near 40% increase in flights over the last decade supports how strong the market is, and there are many factors behind that growth. This highlights that however mature a market is there is always room for more expansion and opportunity – both for airlines and travellers.

So, what are the key drivers?

Less Choice but More Competition?

In summer 2000, 45 airlines operated scheduled flights across the Atlantic including some carriers no longer operating, such as CityBird and AOM French Airlines, and some airlines with obscure 5th Freedom traffic rights, such as Biman Bangladesh Airlines and Kuwait Airways, who both offered cheap if low frequency ways to cross the pond.

British Airways were the single largest airline operating in summer 2000 with just over 8,500 scheduled flights, or around 40 daily services, with Delta Air Lines in second position slightly ahead of American Airlines.

Through a combination of mergers in the United States, airline collapses in Europe, consolidation in Central Europe, and the influence of airline alliances, there are now only 37 airlines operating in summer 2023 - but the scale and size of their respective networks are considerably stronger than what we saw in the summer of 2000. The impact of consolidation is clearly seen in the table above where the “Big Three” US carriers now dominate the market from a frequency perspective, third placed American Airlines operating some 60% more flights than the largest European-domiciled airline British Airways.

The rapid percentage growths reported by United Airlines and Delta Air Lines reflect their mergers with Continental and Northwest who both had large operations to Europe, whereas US Airways, acquired by American Airlines, had one of the smaller networks across the pond.

Most noticeable of all though is the ever-increasing network to the United States from Turkish Airlines who have consistently been growing their operation and now offer over 4,000 flights in each summer, twenty flights a day compared to just twice daily in summer 2000 – this is a remarkable expansion in a very competitive market.

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Innovation and Technology

At the turn of the century, 99% of all scheduled flights were operated by wide-bodied aircraft with the B747 and B767 market leaders. The 1% of single aisle services were operated by Continental Airlines who were pioneering the development of some secondary European markets to Newark, whilst until summer 2003 Concorde was still scaring the birds as it roared off the runway at London Heathrow. Four or indeed three engine aircraft dominated the market with one British airline proclaiming that four engines were always better than two…until you change your fleet of course!

Fast forward to this summer and over 90% of services will be operated by twin-engine aircraft with the B777 accounting for over 22% of flights and the A330 a close second with a 20% share of the market. Whilst the term “Next Generation” can be defined depending on your age, one in four flights are scheduled to be operated by new wide-bodied aircraft such as the A350 and B787. A further 8,200 services will be operated by single-aisle aircraft types such as B737’s and A321’s and - while only accounting for some 7% of all flights - there is a growing trend towards these aircraft being used for such sectors.

Innovation and technology have transformed the economics for many carriers, allowing for cheaper operating costs and of course lower emissions from new aircraft. And with that transformation in operating costs, new - previously marginal - routes have suddenly become possible (if in some cases, only on a seasonal basis).

Some New Markets, But Fewer Airport Pairs Operating

It’s not unusual to see airlines dropping and adding new airport pairs, it’s almost as common as holding over Heathrow before landing, we call it network churn.

Taking the UK market as an example, there are thirteen fewer airport pairs being operated this summer than in 2019 - although the absolute number of scheduled flights has increased by nearly 5% with some 1,500 more flights operated. Post a major disruption, such as the pandemic, airlines will consolidate back to their core networks which explains a 14% increase in flights between London Heathrow and New York JFK. Equally, new aircraft deliveries have allowed some experimentation with several new routes such as Atlanta – Edinburgh and London Gatwick – Washington being trialled this year, some of which may perhaps only be seasonal based on historic demand profiles.

Airport pairs that have been dropped this summer compared to last year include low frequency services from the now closed Doncaster Airport to Melbourne Florida, and what was a very low frequency service from Belfast to Orlando.

Looking at specific airline developments, United Airlines appear to be leading the way opening a cluster of new routes this summer including flights to Berlin from Washington, Barcelona and Shannon to Chicago and a Malaga to Newark service. American Airlines meanwhile have added a Seattle to Heathrow service and a low frequency Paris to Charlotte service that will enhance connectivity to Florida.

With more flights, strong demand, and capacity once again under pressure in many markets there is every reason to expect this summer to be a record revenue-producing period for airlines across the Atlantic. Whilst some carriers are expanding rapidly into smaller, thinner markets, others such as Lufthansa and British Airways are adopting more cautious approaches to frequencies operated. As always there are different strategies from different airlines with different views of the market and product on offer, but for all this summer may have the cash tills ringing louder than ever!

Infographic: The Transatlantic Aviation Bounce Back

US to Europe flights infographic (1)-1

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