Delta starts flights on crowded Sydney-LAX route

photo: Delta flight 16, a Boeing 777-200LR, gets ready to leave Sydney. Photo by AFP
Delta Air Lines started Los Angeles - Sydney service on July 1, becoming (as Fish pointed out) the first US airline to fly to all six 'inhabited' continents since Pan Am. If anything, it further sends home the message that Delta is now a major international player, and that it's putting some of the route authorities it acquired with Northwest to good use. Even though the US, unlike so many other countries, has never had an official 'flag carrier,' Pan Am was the closest to it until it went bust in 1991. So perhaps now Delta has assumed that mantle - not bad for an airline that, 80 years ago last month, started out as a crop-dusting operation in Louisiana.

But Delta had better not be expecting an easy ride on the US-Australia route, which is known for being a major cash cow for the airlines that fly it. Up until recently, those airlines were Qantas and United, and they both made a lot of money (Qantas apparently makes 20 to 30% of its money on the route, and I recall that United also also attributes a pretty hefty amount of its earnings to the route as well). United and Qantas had a lock on the market, and if you didn't like one of those airlines, your options were, well, rather limited (unless you wanted to fly via Asia, which adds several hours). Qantas flew about 70% of the traffic, leaving United with the remaining 30%.

But Virgin offshoot V Australia started flying between Sydney and Los Angeles this past February, and suddenly things got complicated - the formerly lucrative route has turned into a money-losing one. Fares went down, as they usually do when a carrier enters a new market; over the past year, prices have gone down by more than half. Qantas' market share on the route is expected to fall to just over 50%, and just as badly, their international yields were down 25% in May versus the same month last year. Capacity will be going up by as much as a third, now that there are new airlines flying the route and Qantas is using the A380, and that can also lead to lower yields.

Still, nobody's giving up, at least not yet. "[The route] is such a jewel that we intend to keep it," said Alison Espley, United's general manager for Australia and New Zealand. "Someone may not last the distance, but we will." She said that United has been flying the route for 24 years and isn't going anywhere, and that other airlines are going to "have to look very seriously" at exiting the route. Virgin chief Richard Branson similarly predicts an airline exiting, but of course, not his own: "I would put money on either Delta or United not flying across the Pacific in two to three years." By year's end, predicts Flightglobal, the market share on the route will be Qantas 60%, United 17%, V Australia 15%, and Delta 8%.

What used to be a comfortable money maker is no longer, and chances are that at least one of the four airlines might have to consider stopping flying Sydney-Los Angeles pretty soon.


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