There'll Always Be an England. How We Gonna Get There?
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 19, 2020 -- You know what they say: There'll always be an England.

You know what we say: How the hell are we gonna get there?

In these bizarre times, with flying at a third of last year's levels and the CDC urging people to stay home for Thanksgiving, we could pick any segment of commercial aviation to inspect. The news and the facts are awful everywhere and anywhere.

But flying between the United States and the United Kingdom is something else again. Its decline and collapse has been nothing less than stunning.

In normal times, eight of the ten busiest international routes to/from the United States touch London. British Airways' London/Heathrow-New York/Kennedy route generates more than $1 billion annually, making it the world's most lucrative route. (That's about 7 percent of the carrier's entire revenue in a year.) And in 2019, BA carried 7 million passengers between the United States and Britain, more than any international airline flying to any destination.

Now? Not so much.

Traffic between the two countries fell 96 percent from October, 2019, to October, 2020. BA was serving 33 cities in the United States and Canada before the pandemic hit. It's flying to just 14 this month, many on a less-than-daily frequency, some just once a week. It is even worse at American Airlines, BA's joint-venture and Oneworld partner. In December, AA will fly just one London route, from its Dallas/Fort Worth hub. Flights from its JFK, Philadelphia, LAX, Miami, Phoenix, Charlotte and Philadelphia hubs are gone. So are American's flights from Boston to Heathrow.

The loss of so much American and British Airways service is no small matter. The two carriers control more than 60 percent of the slots at Heathrow, effectively the only British airport that matters to U.S. travelers. But the BA/AA axis is hardly alone in pulling down flights. United, Delta and Virgin Atlantic have all slashed their U.S.-U.K. service. Heathrow officials say that passenger traffic between the airport and North America was down an astounding 94.6 percent in October.

One more negative: Norwegian Air, a growing factor across the transatlantic before the pandemic, is probably toast. Its key unit, the one that holds the aircraft and related assets, filed for bankruptcy this week in an Irish court. Norwegian continues flying a rump domestic operation within Norway, but its future as a useful transatlantic player is dim and few expect it'll return to Heathrow.

It's easy enough to say that all this is transitory. The Coronavirus vaccines are coming and things will start looking a lot more normal in the second half of next year or early in 2022.

Um, no.

Just this week, the Anglo-American flying regime changed drastically. A fusillade of developments altered the transatlantic balance and may transform how we fly across the pond when we get on the road again.

At the most prosaic level, the United States and United Kingdom finally signed off on a new bilateral aviation agreement. That's needed since Britain soon exits the last parts of its trade arrangements with the European Union and we require a separate peace to keep the planes flying. The new deal, which takes effect January 1, is called open skies, but that's more a term of art than functioning policy. While U.S. airports (save modestly slot-controlled JFK) are open, Heathrow is full up and a pair of slots costs north of $50 million--if you can pry them away from an incumbent LHR carrier. That seriously retards any real future competition.

There are options, of course, even if the goal is flying to London rather than somewhere else in Britain. That brings us to JetBlue Airways, which has been teasing service to England. This week it reaffirmed plans to begin London flights next year and even secured operating positions at Gatwick and Stansted, the British capital's other major airports. If current industry scuttlebutt is true, JetBlue will fly twice a day between Boston/Logan and Stansted and once a day between JFK and Gatwick.

It's logical to think of JetBlue as a functional replacement for Norwegian, but look carefully. Unlike the widebody Boeing 787 Dreamliners that Norwegian used across the Atlantic, JetBlue plans to deploy long-range versions of the narrowbody Airbus A321. That means 3x3 coach seating in a single-aisle fuselage and no premium economy offering akin to Norwegian's roomy and cheap upfront service on Dreamliners. On the bright side, JetBlue still offers an inch or two extra legroom in coach and will roll out a London-specific version of Mint, its much-admired business class. JetBlue also has domestic feed into Boston and JFK, something Norwegian couldn't offer.

But JetBlue hasn't abandoned hope of getting into Heathrow, too. It is pursuing "remedy slots" (read: free space) there as part of one of this week's other major developments: the approval of Aer Lingus as the latest immunized partner in the Oneworld Alliance.

As you may recall from the distant, pre-Covid past, British Airways' parent company scooped up Aer Lingus in order to connect Americans heading to Europe over Dublin instead of Heathrow. After a few years of hemming and hawing, it also applied to shoehorn Aer Lingus into the Oneworld Alliance and the BA-AA joint venture, too.

The U.S. Transportation Department gave its preliminary nod to the deal this week, but there will be a price: British Airways and American Airlines must surrender some slots at Heathrow. JetBlue wants them. Whether it gets them is an open question, of course, and remember that JetBlue doesn't have clean hands. It and American Airlines struck a code-share deal over the summer. Bureaucrats might be reluctant to give Heathrow slots to a carrier already aligned to the AA-BA axis. Stay tuned on this one.

Finally, the immediate future of U.S.-British travel--both nations currently require you to quarantine on arrival--could be testing. United and AA-BA this week both began testing on London routes. Their goal isn't to create proprietary test regimens, but to convince politicians to create an Anglo-American travel "bubble" across the pond. If standardized testing was implemented on all flights between the countries, quarantine-free, relatively normal transatlantic flying could resume well before vaccines are available.

You remember relatively normal, right? No? Honestly, neither do I. But I am interested in seeing for myself if England is still there.