By Richard Thompson/ The Advocate
London is calling. After a four-year courtship, New Orleans airport officials made it official Thursday, announcing that British Airways will begin offering nonstop flights to and from London starting in March. The flights, slated to begin March 27, will connect New Orleans to London’s Heathrow Airport four times per week.
They’re scheduled to leave London at 3:40 p.m. and arrive in New Orleans at 7:40 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Departing flights will leave New Orleans at 9:10 pm on the same days and arrive in London at noon the next day.
The new service, announced at Louis Armstrong International Airport, was celebrated by dozens of local officials and business leaders and a top-ranking British Airways executive. Many referred to it as a game-changer that would generate tens of millions of dollars in new visitor spending in Louisiana.
“Reconnecting New Orleans and London with nonstop flights makes perfect business and tourism sense for our state,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “More travellers come to the U.S. from the U.K. than any other nation outside the Americas, and New Orleans experienced the biggest growth rate in overseas visitors of any U.S. city last year.”
An online search showed the price for a round-trip economy ticket on the inaugural flight March 27 and returning April 3 starts at about $953.
The flight to London is scheduled to take eight hours and 40 minutes; the return flight clocks in at 10 hours.
The airline plans to use Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner planes on the route. The planes can hold 214 passengers in three cabins: 154 in economy, 25 in premium economy and 35 in business.
For local officials and business leaders, announcement came after years of trying to persuade a large international carrier to offer nonstop service between New Orleans and a premier European destination — with London being the top choice.
“We are delighted to be adding New Orleans to the British Airways global network,” said Simon Brooks, British Airways’ senior vice president of sales. “It’s such a vibrant city, and like London, it boasts an iconic music and arts scene. I’m sure it will be a big hit with British visitors.”
Simon Brooks, British Airways’ senior vice president North America (L) and Mayor Mitch Landrieu
Simon said the Boeing 787 is “known for its smooth ride” and boasted that it has the largest windows of any commercial airliner and offers views of the horizon from every seat.
More than a decade into New Orleans’ post-Hurricane Katrina recovery, nonstop service to and from a world business capital like London, local business leaders have contended, would help draw more international travellers and diversify the city’s tourism-heavy economy.
Simon touched , saying the airline was excited to connect “our two cities as developing technology hubs and look forward to increased business opportunities as a result of the new service.”
New Orleans hasn’t had a nonstop flight to Europe since 1982
Though negotiations aren’t yet finalized, New Orleans’ tourism bureau is expected to kick in $1 million a year for three years to British Airways to help subsidize the flights and an additional $400,000 a year that will go toward marketing and sales.
Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that the incentives pale in comparison with the estimated $41 million in annual tourism spending in the metro area that the new service will generate.
“We think we’re going to have extraordinary success with this flight,” Perry said. “It offers the best of everything. It’s the best new plane on the market. It has more amenities and it’s got multiple pricing opportunities, which is going to make it attractive for business people and leisure travel.”
Although airport officials announced earlier this year that German airline Condor will begin nonstop service to Frankfurt starting in 2017, getting direct flights to London’s Heathrow was long considered the top prize. Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, has about 80 airlines serving 185 destinations in 84 countries.
Transatlantic service has largely bypassed the Crescent City in favour of larger regional hubs like Houston and Atlanta since the 1970s. The city’s pitch to British Airways, which began in 2012, included overseas visits by state governors and hard sells by business leaders and executives from across the Gulf Coast, people involved in the talks said. The deal happened despite concerns that Britain’s vote this year to leave the European Union could stall it.
“We’re going to go from being a (tourism) destination to a global city again,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group. The New Orleans airport has experienced steady growth in recent years, hitting 10.7 million passengers last year, the most in its seven-decade history. More than 430 passengers a day travel from New Orleans to Western Europe by way of regional hubs like Atlanta, tourism officials say.
Already, New Orleans’ airport offers nonstop service to a handful of foreign cities, including several Caribbean locations and Toronto.
Miami-based National Airlines operated the first nonstop flight from New Orleans to Europe in the late 1970s. National was acquired by Pan Am in 1980 and the service ended not long afterward. Consumer demand fell amid the oil bust of the mid-80s and in subsequent years wasn’t great enough to entice another airline to fill the void.
Last year, Copa Airlines launched nonstop flights between New Orleans and Copa’s hub at Tocumen International Airport in Panama, giving local travellers access to dozens of destinations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.