Stuart Bailey / Courtesy British Airways
British Airways' new twice weekly nonstop service from Charleston to London's Heathrow Airport may be a "toe in the water" for now, but if the numbers bear out, the route could turn into a strategic portal for the airline to shuttle travelers to London and the rest of Europe.
Last year, 8,652 people flew from Charleston International Airport to London, according to John Grant, a senior analyst with OAG, a U.K.-based airline data clearinghouse that does business with companies like British Airways. About a quarter of those London travelers flew through Atlanta.
So, with less than 9,000 Charleston travelers flying to London in a year, what does British Airways see in Charleston that, until now, other airlines have not? For that answer, you have to look at where else Charleston travelers were flying and how they got there.
In total, 50,000 travelers flew from Charleston to Europe in 2018, Grant says, with the largest portion flying to Germany. Many of those travelers flew on a combination of United Airlines and Lufthansa, giving British Airways (BA) a chance to scoop up those customers by routing them through London instead.
"Strategically, BA would see this as an opportunity to take alliance revenue from a competitor and put it into its own pot," Grant says. British Airways' domestic U.S. partner is American Airlines.
At Heathrow, British Airways is also well positioned to fly Charleston travelers to Italy and elsewhere in the U.K., their next-most-popular destinations.
"You should not underestimate the privilege of having a service to Heathrow and the connectivity that affords to other points," Grant says. "Heathrow is the jewel in many airlines' networks, and obviously it is the big jewel in the British Airways network. And that connectivity is so important for this service to work."
Around 40 percent of British Airways' total profit is derived from traffic to North America. The airline's JFK to Heathrow service is said to be the most-lucrative route in the world, bringing in more than $1 billion
for the company every year. BA is also establishing nonstop service from Nashville and Pittsburgh to London this year.
"For them, it is almost a slam dunk, in terms of nearly everything they put on will work," Grant says.
The route likely won't make British Airways any money in its first year, Grant says, but the next few months will decide the future of Charleston's first nonstop service to Europe.
"They will be hoping that there is a positive curve of development that encourages them to add a third frequency, and then a fourth and a fifth, to the point that it does become profitable," Grant says.
BA officials are likely planning winter schedules right now, Grant says, and will look at the numbers to make any decisions about adding service in September or October of this year.
Even then, expanding nonstop service would require British Airways to acquire additional gate space at Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world where more than 650 flights can land each day.
British Airways operates twice weekly service from Charleston International Airport on Thursdays and Sundays starting today, April 4, running through late October. Flights leave CHS at 11:20 p.m., arriving in London the next afternoon at 12:20 p.m. Returning flights depart London 5:30 p.m., arriving in Charleston at 9:30 p.m.