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October 1, 2014

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Expert: Vegas on right path looking for global partners

If aviation expert Mike Boyd is right about the direction air transport is headed — and he usually is — Las Vegas should be in a good position with its strategy to attract more international flights.

The emphasis at this year’s Boyd Group International aviation forecast was going global, and Boyd, who has been making predictions about the industry for more than 15 years, said rewards await the communities that have had the foresight to recruit internationally or have been lucky enough to be in the path of an airline that sees an opportunity.

Las Vegas has been on both fronts.

For years, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has been working to court international air carriers, recognizing that their American counterparts don’t have much interest in flying anywhere but their hub airports.

The consolidation of Northwest with Delta and United with Continental have bolstered that position. Delta will fly over Las Vegas to Salt Lake City before it will put a nonstop flight into McCarran International Airport from, say, Tokyo.

United will look to San Francisco and Denver before bringing anything to Las Vegas from Frankfurt, Germany.

Las Vegas’ biggest hope for international lift from a domestic carrier was with US Airways, which once had a thriving Las Vegas hub as America West Airlines. But that faded away when Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways decided to focus on its hubs in Phoenix, Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C., leaving Las Vegas in the dust.

It wasn’t that hard of a decision for US Airways, which never saw much profitability in Las Vegas as a leisure market and eventually cut capacity to make money. The strategy seems to have worked because US Airways is much healthier today, even as it whacked close to 100 flights a day from its Las Vegas schedule over two years.

That’s why the authority has gone to the likes of British Airways and Korean Air to get nonstop service from Europe and Asia.

Boyd said the biggest opportunities exist in getting airlines that many Las Vegans have never heard of. How many people really knew much about XL Airways France before that company began twice-a-week nonstops between Paris and Las Vegas last May?

Airlines such as China’s Hainan could be a candidate for nonstop service between that country and Las Vegas someday, he said.

In the meantime, Boyd said Las Vegas should pay attention to what’s happening in the world of strategic alliances.

The next best thing to a daily nonstop flight from some other continent is an easy connection developed by alliances between multiple airlines that connect customers seamlessly.

The development of global alliances was another big theme at the conference. Today, three major alliances are SkyTeam, Star Alliance and oneworld.

SkyTeam members that fly to McCarran include Delta, Korean Air and Aeromexico. Ten other airlines are members, including KLM (Netherlands), Air France and Russia’s Aeroflot.

Star Alliance partners that fly to McCarran include Air Canada, Continental, United and US Airways. The largest of the alliances, Star has 28 members with Lufthansa, Air China, All Nippon and Singapore as the big players.

McCarran fliers in oneworld include American Airlines and British Airways. The big carriers for the 11-member alliance are Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Mexicana, a carrier that flew to McCarran, but filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations, continues to be listed as a member.

Two key carriers are missing from the alliances list — low-cost dominators Southwest Airlines and Ryannair.

Don’t expect Southwest to climb on the alliance bandwagon anytime soon. That airline has plenty on its plate, and it isn’t Southwest’s way to let somebody else sell their seats. Southwest prefers to stay in control of its inventory and is pretty picky about the companies it wants to roll with.

A couple of days after the Boyd conference, Southwest unveiled some of the details of its code-share agreement with Volaris, a Mexican carrier that many Las Vegans probably have never heard of, but likely will in the months ahead.

Volaris, Mexico’s second busiest carrier and a low-fare cousin in the Southwest mold, serves 27 cities in Mexico and the United States. As a partner, Southwest sells flights within Mexico on southwest.com. In the weeks ahead, the partnership will expand and customers will be able to buy connecting flights through Los Angeles International Airport, Oakland and San Jose.

Don’t be too surprised if someday Volaris finds its way to Las Vegas as it is looking to expand its transborder flights.

Volaris flies A319 and A320 twin-engine jets. The most astonishing thing about the carrier is its on-time flight guarantee. CEO Enrique Beltranena said at Southwest Airlines Media Day last week that if a Volaris flight arrives more than 30 minutes late, passengers are refunded their ticket costs. Imagine if Delta, United or American tried that!

A conversation about McCarran’s international flight opportunities wouldn’t be complete without a mention about its biggest market, Canada.

Calgary, Alberta-based WestJet continues to be in the driver’s seat in that market. Although a partnership similar to the Volaris deal was on the horizon with Southwest, WestJet instead hooked up with American Airlines. Those companies haven’t spelled out what that relationship would mean, if anything, for Las Vegas.

Even without a lift from the partnership, WestJet has been a nice international growth story for Las Vegas and McCarran.

Through September, WestJet has flown 579,324 passengers to and from Las Vegas, by far the most of any international carrier. WestJet passenger counts are 10.2 percent ahead of 2009 numbers.

That’s the kind of growth Las Vegas needs on all international fronts. Someday, the patience and perseverance of the city’s efforts will be rewarded. Residents should view it as an investment in our future.

McCarran statistics

McCarran saw fewer passengers than in 2009 with traffic down 2 percent to 3.3 million people in September.

In 2010’s first three quarters, traffic is down 2.4 percent to 29.9 million people.

Most of the decline is because of the capacity pullback of US Airways, which showed a 50 percent decline in passengers to 179,855 for the month and a 53.5 percent decline to 1.8 million for nine months.

Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines continue to lead the pack at McCarran, showing increases for the month and three quarters.

Market leader Southwest had 1.3 million passengers in September, a 0.4 percent increase over September 2009. For the first three quarters, Southwest reported 11.8 million passengers, a 0.2 percent increase.

Delta, which completed a merger with Northwest Airlines earlier this year, has expanded capacity and reported 341,592 passengers for September, 4.6 percent more than September 2009, with 3.1 million for nine months, 9.4 percent ahead of last year.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air ranked seventh among McCarran carriers with 139,581 passengers for the month, a 22.4 percent dip from September 2009. For the three quarters, Allegiant is up 4.5 percent to 1.5 million passengers.

Early ski destinations

Colorado boasts about its fabulous ski resorts, and Utah brags that it has “the greatest snow on Earth.” But where is orbitz.com highlighting as the top early ski destination in the country? Hint: It’s in Nevada (and, actually, California, too).

Lake Tahoe heads Orbitz’s list, released earlier this week, citing the propensity for early snow and a flurry of good lodging deals. Tahoe also topped the company’s in-season list of ski destinations last year.

“Lake Tahoe is one of the top annual ski destinations for good reason — it’s beautiful, the air is crisp and clear, and the sun shines most of the time,” Orbitz said of the resort. “During winter, with an average snowfall topping 400 inches, Lake Tahoe is one of the nation’s premier ski destinations, offering 15 downhill resorts and 10 cross-country ski centers.”

Following Lake Tahoe were Park City, Utah; Breckenridge, Colo.; Vail, Colo.; Whistler, British Columbia; Aspen, Colo.; Mammoth, Calif.; Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Snowmass, Colo., tied for eighth; and Steamboat Springs, Colo.

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