American Airlines has built its success on connecting passengers from all corners of the globe, to get them where they want to go. Considering the size and position of some of its United States hubs, it might come as a surprise to know that its most important international connecting hub is not in the States at all – it’s in London.
American Airlines’ most important connecting hub
For a huge hub and spoke airline like American Airlines, stringent travel restrictions have strangled its international long-haul operations. Despite remaining the biggest airline in the US by seat numbers, and already returning more than 85% of its 2019 capacity, American has been waiting just as much as anyone for international to properly reopen.
When the news broke that travel between the US and the UK would soon become easier, the corridors of American Airlines’ HQ were undoubtedly ringing with jubilation. Speaking exclusively to Simple Flying, Americans’ Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja explained just what it meant for the transatlantic to be reopening.
“I’ll tell you, probably nobody was more excited than us to hear that, because so much of our airline’s long-haul network is built around Heathrow. AA alone operates around 22, 23 flights a day into Heathrow. Between AA and British Airways, we have a massive presence there.”
It’s not surprising that Heathrow is a crucial hub for American Airlines. The busy London airport is the home turf of its UK partner British Airways, and the most important hub for that airline. BA, with its sister airlines under the IAG umbrella, operates 55% of takeoff and landing slots at Heathrow during normal times. But Heathrow is even more critical to American than that, as Raja explained,
“A little-known fact is our largest international connecting complex is actually London Heathrow. We connect more international customers over Heathrow than we do over Philadelphia, Miami, even Dallas Fort Worth.”
As an airline that is so firmly rooted in the US, with some of the world’s biggest and most well-established hubs, it’s incredible to think that Heathrow is AA’s most important international connecting airport.
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Through the pandemic, Heathrow has been hugely challenged. With stringent travel restrictions not only imposed from within the UK, but from outside of the UK too, the airport just hasn’t been the same hub it once was. That meant that, ultimately, the airport lost connecting traffic to other connection points, as Raja explained,
“Quite honestly, Heathrow as a connecting point was challenged mightily through the pandemic … it just couldn’t function as the same connecting point that many airports on the continent could. Indeed, that’s probably what led to such a massive development in the partnership between AA and Qatar Airways. Because at a time when many of our competitors were using continental European hubs to connect people into Africa or the Indian subcontinent, we were using Doha.”
American’s partnership with Qatar gave it a new point over which to connect, and given the way Doha remained relatively open throughout the pandemic, it was a lifeline for this vast international carrier. But that doesn’t mean American has forgotten about London. Indeed, the airline is already laying the groundwork to ramp up flying into Heathrow again, to reposition this important hub back into its international network. Raja said,
“The announcement is certainly a big shot to the arm for us as we go into planning next year, because that creates a lot more opportunities. We aren’t yet sure if what we bring back is a replica of what was there before; it’s pretty unlikely that that’s the case. There’ll probably be some changes … because we think there will still be a lag in time before business demand resumes at the clip that it was at pre pandemic. But that’s okay.
“This certainly creates a path to be able to go and rapidly build back the network, get customers flying again and ultimately prepare for a full return of international travel.”
And when will that full return of international travel be? Raja thinks we could start seeing the green shoots as early as the first part of 2022. He commented,
“We think that with yesterday’s announcement that could turn itself around quite quickly. And indeed, by you know, a few months into 2022, if international demand follows the trends that we’ve seen in the short haul space, things could come back pretty fast, and pretty impressively.”
With the reopening of transatlantic set to takeoff in November, all things being equal, carriers like American Airlines could be in for a bumper start to 2022.