Europe’s Airlines Ready Transatlantic Return

Air France jet
Air France-KLM’s CEO says the U.S. reopening is “really good news.”
Credit: Air France

Europe’s airlines are boosting their winter schedules on transatlantic routes during the coming months with the hope that they will be able to make up for lost time.

After months of lobbying and a roller coaster of hope and disappointment for the European airlines that depend heavily on transatlantic routes, the good news finally came on Sept. 20. The Biden administration announced an update that travelers from 33 countries including most of the EU and the UK, from which nonessential travel had previously been banned, would be allowed to enter the U.S. with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test starting in November.

  • SAS, Finnair strengthening U.S. networks
  • Air France has reinstated all long-haul destinations
  • Lufthansa Group seeing high December demand for U.S. destinations

“We are very, very happy that the U.S. government has finally removed restrictions,” said Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith at a Sept. 29 event in Paris to present Air France’s first new Airbus A220 aircraft.   

“It’s really good news for us. The U.S. market is the most important market for us, and for KLM. It represents 40% of our activity,” Smith said. “For next year, we are totally mobilized to make the most of this opportunity.”

Air France CEO Anne Rigail said at the same event that Air France has now reinstated all long-haul destinations to its schedule starting in November, albeit not always at pre-COVID frequencies—including Seattle, the last of its U.S. destinations to reopen.

“We finally had the good news about November, but we had already planned for it,” Rigail said. “From November, our full offer is available to our clients. We are confident about the recovery of the American market.”

Air France partner KLM has also announced it will be operating additional services to U.S. destinations this winter: The airline is resuming planned flights to Las Vegas and Miami starting Dec. 7. It had previously been forced to cancel those planned services because of quarantine requirements the Dutch government said it would impose on U.S. arrivals, but those have been withdrawn.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also painted a picture of international recovery, driven by the transatlantic market, as the association announced its latest outlook for the industry on Oct. 4 as part of its 2021 Annual General Meeting in Boston.

The group said international demand would be the slowest segment to recover, forecasting that international demand would reach 22% of 2019 levels this year and 44% in 2022.

IATA also predicted that European carriers would see losses drop to $9.2 billion in 2022 from $20.9 billion this year.

“Better coordination between governments is expected to see a broader opening of international markets in the months ahead, boosted significantly by the reestablishment of transatlantic travel for vaccinated travelers,” IATA said. Long-haul demand, however, will significantly lag behind the recovery in intra-European travel.”

The CAPA – Centre for Aviation’s analysis of network capacity data shows the U.S. announcement is already having an effect, even if the rules will not actually change for a few more weeks. Total seat numbers in Europe stood at 32.7% below 2019 levels the week of Sept. 27, an improvement from the previous week’s tally of 34.2% below 2019 levels. Passenger flows had plateaued at around that level—34.2% below 2019 figures—for eight weeks, but the news of the U.S. opening in November has given the numbers a boost, CAPA said Sept. 28.   

The North Atlantic seat count, which was 52.5% below 2019 capacity in the week that began Sept. 27, was still higher than what had been expected for that period just a week earlier. That segment is currently scheduled to reach 85% of 2019 levels in January 2022, in line with projections for the total European market, CAPA said.

Air France jet
IATA predicts European carriers will face losses of $9.2 billion in 2022, down from $20.9 billion in 2021. Credit: Air France

Lufthansa Group also said it would respond to what it described as a “boom in pent-up demand” since the U.S. announcement by launching additional flights to U.S. destinations at short notice. Lufthansa and Swiss will offer a combined total of three daily flights to Miami in November, for example.   

“On certain days in the last week, flights across the Atlantic increased threefold over the week before,” Lufthansa Group said Sept. 28.

The group also noted very strong demand for flights to U.S. destinations in December, with new bookings since the U.S. government announcement as high as the same period in 2019. “Flights to New York—traditionally in high demand during the Christmas season—have already been bolstered with additional connections,” the company said.

In December, Lufthansa Group airlines will offer up to 55 weekly connections to New York from their European hubs in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. And a further short-term expansion of services is also being considered, the group said.   

Brussels Airlines noted a significant increase in bookings for its New York flights to John F. Kennedy International Airport since the Sept. 20 announcement. The airline plans to operate four frequencies per week during the winter season and may add extra flights during the winter holiday period if demand continues to grow, it said Sept. 30.

The Lufthansa Group, which is also increasing domestic services to its hubs to improve connection possibilities, said it expected the U.S. opening to be a signal for other countries and regions to roll back travel restrictions and make international air travel easier again.

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) said Sept. 27 that it would expand its New York schedule with daily flights from Stockholm to New York and an Oslo-New York flight operating four times a week. These routes would be in addition to existing daily flights from Copenhagen. SAS will fly 12 direct routes to the U.S. this fall and winter.

Finnair said Sept. 14 that it would strengthen its North American services. It plans to fly from Helsinki to Chicago—previously a summer route—throughout the winter season, as well as flying a daily route from Helsinki to New York and operating three weekly flights each to Miami and Los Angeles. The carrier is also introducing direct routes to Los Angeles and New York from Stockholm.

British Airways, which reinstated its Denver route from London’s Heathrow Airport in September, is set to fly direct to San Diego three times a week starting Oct. 13. Meanwhile, fellow International Airlines Group airline Iberia also said Sept. 16 that it is increasing New York and Miami services to 10 times a week, while continuing to operate to Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles as well.

Dublin-based Aer Lingus said Oct. 1 that it would resume transatlantic flights to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey beginning on Nov. 14 and to Orlando, Florida, starting on Nov. 27 as part of what it described as a “bumper restart.”

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.