Published Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 | 12:59 p.m.
Updated Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 | 6:25 p.m.
British Airways began nonstop service to Las Vegas from London's Gatwick International Airport today, in what will become the first overseas competitive route to the city by two major international air carriers.
British Airways Flight 2277 arrived at McCarran International Airport's Terminal 3 at about the same time as Virgin Atlantic Flight 43 arrived from the same London airport.
"We were completely full," said Silla Maizey, managing director of British Airways-Gatwick, who arrived on the flight and is spending five days in Las Vegas.
The United Kingdom is the No. 1 source of overseas travelers to come through McCarran, with about 418,000 visitors arriving in 2011, accounting for nearly 9 percent of all international travel to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority officials say British Airways' new Gatwick service is estimated to provide a nongaming economic impact of nearly $41.5 million annually.
Randall Walker, director of the Clark County Aviation Department, and Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, who chairs the LVCVA board of directors, greeted the British Airways crew and the flight's 272 passengers.
British Airways is offering the flight three times a week to compete with Virgin's daily service. It's using a 272-passenger, twin-engine Boeing 777 on the route.
British Airways will operate its Las Vegas service from Gatwick on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. For the first week of service, flights will arrive at 3:05 p.m. (2:55 p.m. on Saturday) and depart at 4:55 p.m.
After the switch to daylight-saving time Sunday, flights will arrive at 2:05 p.m. (1:55 p.m. on Saturday) and depart at 3:55 p.m.
Virgin officials have told the LVCVA that its route from Gatwick has done well. It began with flights three times a week but steadily grew to daily service in 2006. The company broadened its presence from the United Kingdom last year when it began flights from Manchester to Las Vegas twice a week.
British Airways, meanwhile, began daily flights from London's Heathrow International Airport in 2009.
Through September, British Airways has carried 299,344 passengers to Las Vegas since it started its daily London Heathrow service. For the first eight months of 2012, British Airways flew 151,736 passengers to and from McCarran while Virgin Atlantic on its two routes served 218,206 passengers.
Maizey said the Gatwick flight would focus on attracting London passengers. Heathrow is the world's busiest airport and about half of the passengers who regularly fly the carrier to Las Vegas are passengers from other cities connecting through London.
Adding the Gatwick route sets the stage for two possible scenarios in the hypercompetitive airline industry. The competition could result in lower fares on the route as the airlines battle for customers or one of the airlines could run for cover and pull out, choosing to dedicate its resources to another more lucrative market.
The latter scenario played out in the late 1990s when Northwest Airlines — which has since been acquired by Delta Air Lines — flew nonstop routes between Tokyo and Las Vegas. It was the only time an American air carrier flew a nonstop overseas route to Las Vegas.
As Northwest's twice-weekly service began to take hold, Japan Airlines announced plans to compete on the route. With Japanese customers more comfortable with their own flagship carrier, it didn't take long for Northwest to abandon the route. When demand began to drop as a result of other unrelated circumstances, Japan Airlines also bailed on flights.
Las Vegas currently doesn't have a nonstop route to and from Tokyo, but Korean Air continues to offer connecting service through Seoul, South Korea.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are bitter rivals along the lines of Coke and Pepsi. The two airlines have faced off publicly and in court over the years, with Virgin's flamboyant CEO, Richard Branson, accusing British Airways of instigating a "dirty tricks" campaign against his airline.
When British Airways floated a proposal to merge with American Airlines in the 1990s, Branson ordered his planes painted with the slogan “No Way BA/AA.”