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Delta, United cutting international flights


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POSTED: Wednesday, March 11, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS » Travelers who used to fly in the expensive seats up front are moving toward the back of the plane, if they fly at all, forcing airlines to cut back on overseas flights that used to be their crown jewels.

Delta Air Lines Inc. said yesterday it will cut international flying another 10 percent beginning in September. United Airlines is cutting international flying 15 percent in the first quarter alone. Those two airlines are by far the largest U.S. carriers to Asia.

And while airlines can shrink domestic flying by shifting to smaller jets on certain routes, that's harder to do with international flights, where they only have so many planes capable of long-haul trips. So United eliminated its Los Angeles to Hong Kong and Frankfurt flights.

Delta's plans to add New York-JFK to Gothenberg, Sweden and a second daily flight from JFK to Tel Aviv in June have been postponed, spokeswoman Betsy Talton said yesterday.

Leisure travel has been falling, too, but less than business travel. Airlines have been able to entice vacationers with lower fares, but that hasn't worked on business travelers, said Helane Becker, a transportation analyst with Jesup & Lamont Securities Corp.

Many of them are dealing with reduced corporate travel budgets that either rule out flying altogether or require them to book coach on shorter flights.

The reduction in international flights is a reversal from the past few years, when airlines aggressively added international routes. Northwest Airlines' Asia routes were a key selling point when it was acquired by Delta last year.

Delta said its international reductions will target its Atlantic and Pacific networks, where revenue has been weakest. Delta said it will exit low-performing markets, adjust frequencies and move some markets to seasonal service. It said it still plans to increase Latin America capacity in the fourth quarter.

At the same time, United is spending money to upgrade its business class and first-class international cabins. That leaves those front-of-the-plane cabins with 20 percent fewer seats, although the total number of seats is rising 3 percent. The customer response has been "overwhelmingly positive," Chief Financial Officer Kathryn Mikells said at an investor conference in New York.

"The premium cabin seat-count reduction is coming at a particularly opportune time, helping us to size these cabins more appropriately for this current down cycle," she said.

She said United would cut more from its Pacific flying than from other markets, and that United has also cut the amount of seats headed to London.