British Airways will launch nonstop flights between London and New Orleans next spring, marking the city's first direct connection with Europe since 1982. Local officials joined tourism and business leaders Thursday morning (Oct. 20) at Louis Armstrong International Airport to disclose the long-coveted connection, which they call a "game-changer" for the region.
The airline will provide year-round service to London's Heathrow Airport starting March 27. The 10-hour flights will depart New Orleans on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 3:40 p.m. central time and arrive at 7:40 a.m. London time. Passengers will travel on a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which holds 214 passengers: 154 in economy class, 25 in premium economy and 35 in business.
The London flight is the culmination of several years of talks between British Airways and local business and tourism leaders. Last year, the airline chose to add a daily London flight to and from San Jose, Calif., instead of New Orleans, a blow to local lobbying efforts.
The deciding factor for British Airways in 2015, according to those close to the negotiations, was that Silicon Valley would support more international business travel, much of it linked to Google's new campus under construction. These "front of the plane" travelers who pay more for tickets and travel frequently are more lucrative to airlines than seasonal tourists in the back of the plane.
However, local officials hinted this summer that London flight negotiations were back on track and moving in a positive direction. A June announcement that Germany's Condor Airlines would start seasonal nonstop service to Frankfurt in May 2017 appeared to add momentum.
The new international flights come as New Orleans seeks to push its total annual visitor count over the pre-Hurricane Katrina peak of 10.1 million. Tourism officials consider international visitors, who generally book longer stays and spend more, a key demographic in fueling local tourism growth. The United Kingdom is the second-largest market for foreign visitors to New Orleans, behind Canada, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"We're beginning to make strides to where the airlines can see we can fill the back of the plane without an issue," said Stephen Perry, chief executive officer of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Since first approaching British Airways, New Orleans-area tourism and business leaders looked outside the immediate region to strengthen their case for London-to-New Orleans flights, Perry said. Their "catchment basin" approach reached from Lake Charles to Destin, Fla., encompassing more than 5 million people, not only to find more potential passengers but also create more destinations for foreign visitors.
Michael Hecht, president and CEO of the regional economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc., said he and Perry reached out to numerous companies, civic groups and tourism organizations along that corridor to gain their support for the British Airways flight.
British Airways raised concerns about depressed oil prices and whether they would dampen business travel interest in the Gulf Coast region, where the economy has been historically weighted toward the energy sector, Hecht said. Local officials mitigated those fears by explaining that cheaper commodities were responsible for a petrochemical industrial boom in south Louisiana, laying out a list of investments topping $250 million.
Other efforts to lure the British Airways flight involved on-the-ground tactics. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau has an office in London, and Perry said its staff worked with every major tour operator and travel broker in the United Kingdom to convince British Airways there was demand for the new service. The bureau has spent more on marketing New Orleans to European travelers thanks to a self-imposed room charge that local hotels started collecting in April 2014. Perry said those resources have been critical to securing the London and Frankfurt flights.
The latest courtship between New Orleans and British Airways started after a spring 2013 GNO Inc. viability study into international flights placed London at the top of a list of "most attractive destinations," followed by Paris and Frankfurt. Actual discussions with the airline began that fall.
In January 2014, Armstrong's then-Aviation Director Iftikhar Ahmad, Hecht, Perry and businessman Greg Rusovich went to London to meet with British Airways. Rusovich's extensive local roles have included the chairmanship of the Convention and Visitors Bureau and GNO Inc. A year later, the-Gov. Bobby Jindal accompanied Hecht and Rusovich to continue talks in London.
San Jose beat out Armstrong in summer 2015, but a British Airways route planning executive visited New Orleans in January to meet with local tourism, business and government leaders. In the ensuing months, Condor would announce its new seasonal service to the city.
Negotiations continued in July when Gov. John Bel Edwards' commissioner of administration, Jay Dardenne, and state economic development officials joined Hecht for another round of talks in London. By September, the particulars of the deal were being locked in place.
Final terms of a Convention and Visitors Bureau agreement with British Airways are still being refined, Perry said, including significant marketing resources and "back stop" provisions that ensure the airline sees revenue from the flights. Specifics on Convention and Visitors Bureau contributions to nail down the London flight weren't immediately available, but the bureau's budget calls for it to spend $1.4 million in the United Kingdom on sales and marketing next year.
The British Airways and Condor flights now give New Orleans two major trans-Atlantic connections for a city that has lacked nonstop service to Europe for three decades. In the interim, Armstrong has sporadically offered non-charter international flights. Air Canada maintains the seasonal Toronto service that it began in May 2010. Regular service to Central America began when Copa Airlines launched direct service between New Orleans and Panama in June 2015.
British Airways last connected to New Orleans in 1982 when the airline used New Orleans as a refueling stop on a route from London to Mexico City.
The carrier also offers direct flights from its Heathrow hub to more than a dozen U.S. cities, including Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Austin and Dallas.