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Europe 2019: More Flights, Few Premium Discounts
Thursday, February 14, 2019 -- Life on the road in mid-February is a sadly predictable affair. Storms obliterate travel schedules. Airport retailers offer schlocky don't-forget-your-loved-ones-back-home promotions. And business travelers begin planning a European holiday, scheming for a few weeks in the French countryside or a drive to Devon or too many glasses of a bargain Barolo.
Weather explains the first reality, of course. (This week, it was snow at Sea-Tac and in the East.) Valentine's Day explains the second. But the third is muscle memory: For many years after 9/11, major airlines released Easter/Passover and Summer business class sales around mid-February.
The sales were the specialty of Continental Airlines and began disappearing when United Airlines and Continental merged a decade ago. Spring, summer and end-of-year sales at the pointy end are much more sporadic now, rarely publicly promoted and almost never offered at the stop-everything-and-book-now fares that Continental pioneered.
Airline pricing gurus I query these days suggest that the sales served their purpose. In the down years of the mid-aughts, they filled seats. Selling seats up front isn't a problem for airlines now. If they put them up there across the Atlantic, they sell.
On the other hand, the transatlantic skies are awash in coach seats. So much so that fares are falling. Plunging, if you will. According to one survey, Lufthansa's weighted average fare between Europe and North America fell to €505 in 2018, down from €604 in 2017. Iberia's fare fell to €422 from €485. Air France, British Airways, KLM and Aer Lingus year-over-year fares fell, too, albeit less dramatically. Overall, transatlantic prices fell 9.1 percent last year compared to 2017.
Why the decline down the back? Capacity, of course. The number of seats in 2018 between North America and Europe rose by a startling 66 percent compared to 2017. Wow Air and Norwegian added dozens of routes and established airlines pushed back with competitive fervor. No way the market could have absorbed that kind of exponential growth. So fares fell fast and hard in coach.
What's it all mean for Europe travel in 2019? Unless you're prepared to deploy the two-seat strategy, you'll have to pony up more to sit up front. Even tried-and-true strategies--flying midweek, staying over a Saturday, booking 60 days in advance--may not yield the kind of savings you hope to discover. And while the geographic fringe players--Aer Lingus of Ireland and TAP Air Portugal--continue to grow, they have been able to command higher premium fares, too. Quick plane changes in Dublin or Lisbon will yield bargains on connecting flights to and from other destinations in Europe, but truly great bargains may have passed.
Perhaps the best way to look at Europe flying and fare outlook this spring, summer and fall is to go country-by-country and consider the new realities. Europe isn't a monolith, after all, and fares reflect that simple truth.
BRITAIN AND THE BREXIT
Never forget that eight of the ten busiest U.S.-Europe routes touch London. Nothing can shake the affinity that Americans and Brits have for each other--and each other's country. But Brexit is creating chaos. With just six weeks before the planned departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the British government is tearing itself asunder over the terms and timing. Although Britain has signed separate aviation peaces with the United States and Canada, a "no-deal" Brexit will at least temporarily moot London's value as a place to change planes for Europe. How might that affect fares? Your guess is at least as good as mine.
Notable service changes: British Airways will launch routes this spring to Heathrow from Pittsburgh and Charleston, South Carolina. Norwegian is shifting Gatwick service to San Francisco (from Oakland) and Miami (from Fort Lauderdale).
FRANCE BEYOND PARIS
As Yellow Vest protests continue--and continue violently--some Americans are rethinking their love affair with Paris. That could drive prices down. And Paris has a price governor: La Compagnie, an all-business-class carrier that flies from Newark to Paris/Orly. You can always self-connect at Newark if prices get too high.
Notable service changes: La Compagnie has the most interesting new route of the year: seasonal flights between Newark and Nice. Also new: Air Canada will fly a seasonal nonstop between Montreal and Bordeaux. That should help moderate prices to the South of France. Meanwhile, Air France resumes flights to Paris/CDG from Dallas/Fort Worth, a dart aimed right at American Airlines. Watch for discounts.
ITALY: MORE FLIGHTS, FEW DEALS
If you want a sense of how skewed the market is in 2019, consider New York-Milan. Six carriers ply the route, yet premium fares continue to rise. It's a testament to how anxious we are for our personal La Dolce Vita. Don't look for too many deals this summer, but "shoulder" seasons like late spring and early fall are comparative bargains.
Notable service changes: Air Italy, 49 percent owned by and flying aircraft formerly operated by Qatar Airways, is adding nonstops to Milan/Malpensa from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. American Airlines is trying a seasonal flight from its Philadelphia hub to Bologna, the first-ever nonstop from the United States. Meanwhile, Alitalia returns to the Washington/Dulles-Rome route to battle United, which flies it only seasonally. For its part, United is adding a seasonal Newark-Naples nonstop.
THE GERMAN MONOLITH
Having stamped out Air Berlin, Lufthansa stands astride the German market like a monolith. Except for occasional and erratic competition from Condor, its former charter division, Lufthansa rules the German and central Europe roost with the aid of subsidies Austrian Airlines and SWISS. And while Lufthansa's connecting flights have been buffeted by lower-fare competition, it's hard to find discounts on nonstops.
Notable service changes: Lufthansa adds an Austin-Frankfurt route and its Eurowings discount division (which has a mirror-image business class) starts flights to Dusseldorf from Las Vegas, a former Air Berlin run. Austrian Airlines and Oneworld Alliance partner Air Canada put a Toronto-Vienna nonstop back on the map.
LOWER FARES TO THE LOW COUNTRIES?
A raft of new flights into Amsterdam could mean some discounts to Europe, assuming you're willing to change planes at Schiphol or take a train to other destinations on the continent. Schiphol isn't the easy, compact hub it once was, but KLM's operations remain more consistent (if less flamboyant) than Air France, with which it shares a parent firm and an uneasy alliance.
Notable service changes: United is adding year-round flights from its San Francisco hub to Amsterdam and KLM is adding or returning to cities such as Boston and Las Vegas. Delta Air Lines is launching flights to Schiphol from Tampa.
FLYING FROM THE FRINGES
They've traveled separate paths, but both Aer Lingus of Ireland and TAP Air Portugal have righted their operations and now maximize their geographic positions. Both sell their hubs (Dublin and Lisbon) as the perfect places to connect elsewhere in Europe. Both will introduce new aircraft (the Airbus A321LR for Aer Lingus and the Airbus A330neo for TAP) this year. The new single-aisle Aer Lingus aircraft will allow the carrier to offer one-seat lie-flat beds between the United States and select European destinations. TAP continues to differentiate itself with free Portugal stopovers when you buy a transatlantic flight.
Notable service changes: Aer Lingus will add flights to Dublin from Minneapolis/St. Paul and Montreal this summer. (By the way, Delta will also add flights to Dublin from its MSP hub this year.) TAP will add nonstops to Lisbon from Chicago, San Francisco and Washington/Dulles. All three are hubs for United, TAP's Star Alliance (and frequent flyer plan) partner. Meanwhile, Delta adds a flight between its Boston/Logan focus city and Lisbon.
SPAIN, POLITICS ASIDE
Spanish politics is always chaotic--a snap election may be due after parliament rejected a budget this week and the Catalan situation is eternally fluid--but that doesn't dim Spain's appeal for American visitors. IAG, the company that owns British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus, also owns Level, a low-fare carrier that has expanded flights from Barcelona to the United States. Its premium economy cabin is sparse, but helps keep fares down.
Notable service changes: Norwegian is cutting elsewhere, but is betting on Spain. It'll launch a new route from Boston to Madrid and add flights on existing routes from New York/JFK and Los Angeles. Also new: a Chicago/O'Hare-Barcelona run, plus more flights to Barcelona from JFK and LAX.
Finnair returns to LAX after a long absence and launches a nonstop to its compact, attractive Helsinki hub. ... United adds flights from Newark to Prague. ... If flying to Iceland cheap was on your bucket list, you missed the window. Icelandair, which unsuccessfully tried to merge with Wow Air, has cut some routes. And Wow is down to a handful of North American nonstops after a frenzied expansion collapsed. ... Norwegian has dropped flights from the United States to Edinburgh and Belfast, Northern Ireland. But it adds a seasonal (July 7-October 26) flight from JFK to Athens. United and Delta also both serve Athens seasonally. The only year-round U.S.-Greece link is Emirates' Newark-Athens run. ... American offers new seasonal nonstops from Philadelphia to Berlin, Dubrovnik and Edinburgh. Its new run between Phoenix and London now operates year-round.
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