A Turndown in Transcon Fares: Permanent or Passing?

Recently, I’ve mentioned the great deals on transatlantic flights that I’ve gotten to a few different people. Almost every time, people say “(the deal you got going to Europe) is cheaper than going to California.”

While I’ve heard those various replies, it wasn’t until recently that I started to think about what they were saying. After all, transcontinental flights have historically run well in excess of $300 round trip, particularly those to California.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at flights between Boston and Los Angeles, which has generally run cheaper than places like San Francisco, Portland, OR, or Seattle. I was quite surprised to find a number of flights not only well under $300, but closer to the $250 range.

Factors at Play

So what has spurred this recent downturn in fares?

There are a number of different things that spur these types of trends, but one of them seems to be the recent introduction of basic economy classes with American legacy carriers like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines.

Though I wrote a piece about the emergence of these fare classes (a year ago to the day!), particularly United’s, one of the major goals of these programs isn’t to “give consumers choice,” as airlines would like you to believe. Rather, it’s to encourage people to pay more to get the same service that they received before.

Perhaps, then, the downturn in transcontinental fares can partly be attributed to the introduction of basic economy classes. However, it’s not just American, Delta, and United who are selling sub-$300 round trips on transcons: jetBlue and Virgin America have both slashed their prices to the point where even flights less than a month out are running in that price range.

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A trip from December 6 to December 10 would cost $237, which is well below traditional norms.

This is particularly surprising, as jetBlue and Virgin America have been known to have economy transcon products that are superior to the aforementioned American legacy carriers. Moreover, neither has implemented a basic economy class (derisively called “economy minus”), so you’d think that they would still be able to charge a (relative) premium.

Looking Ahead

While these recent developments are certainly good for the average traveler looking to escape to the West Coast, this isn’t to say that transcontinental fares will stay low permanently. Additionally, while international flights are (generally) further in distance and have their own unique requirements that can drive prices up comparable to domestic flights, and while the U.S. domestic airspace already contains budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier, the arrival of carriers like Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW Air have certainly put downward pressure on a number of transatlantic markets. As a result, any fluctuation could well put these transcon fares back above the routes they’re currently cheaper than.

Moreover, fares are not made to be identical or stagnant, as, for example, a market with less competition and a high number of business travelers is likely to have a higher base fare at any given time. After all, from a business standpoint, why charge less when people will pay more? Airlines are businesses, and businesses aim to maximize profits, so they’ll do their best to get the maximum “willingness to pay” out of their customers. If that willingness is “up” in a certain place, it’s reasonable to assume that the prices will adjust accordingly.

Despite all the pessimism in the preceding two paragraphs, there’s certainly much to be optimistic about. With the ever-increasing affordability of air travel, particularly to destinations far away, the American public can continue to look forward to newfound travel opportunities both near and far.

End of an Iconic Era: The passenger Boeing 747

As a young kid, I had a (well-documented) affinity with aircraft. My father and I used to walk down the street from our house in rural Maine to the local air strip, and I would watch the prop planes take off and land. However, it wasn’t until I got older that I started to learn about different types of airliners. And while I’ve been fortunate enough to fly on a variety of different planes over the years, one stands above the rest: the Boeing 747.

The 747 Story

The 747 is a timeless classic — aesthetically and otherwise — whose impact has been like no other. Its distinctive “hump” and four engines are unmistakably unique. It was the plane that revolutionized air travel, making it accessible to the masses.

Ironically, though, it wasn’t even supposed to be more than a stop-gap. Back  in the 1960s, supersonic air travel was thought to be only a few years away. Of course, this didn’t happen for a number of reasons, namely that fuel burn and aircraft stress is disproportionately affected by supersonic travel, as well as the fact that — following tests — civilian aircraft weren’t allowed to fly supersonic over land within the United States. The buzz of supersonic travel came and went, but the 747 stayed.

Even the Airbus A380 — which, in 2007, overtook the 747 as the largest passenger aircraft in service — didn’t have the same impact as the original Jumbo, and the A380 program is largely being kept alive by Emirates. The 747, however, has sold more than 1,500 frames, both cargo and passenger.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

That said, we are entering the twilight years for the 747. Delta Air Lines — the last U.S. carrier to operate the passenger type — will fly its final 747 flight next month. Moreover, the newest passenger variant, the 747-8, is only in service with three carriers: Air China, Korean Air, and Lufthansa. Even British Airways, the world’s largest operator of the 747-400, has stated its intention to retire the fleet by 2024. As cliche as it is, we are entering the end of an era.

A Change in the Landscape

With all that 747s have done over the years, why retire something that has served so many airlines so well?

The answer is multifaceted, but it ultimately comes down to technology. As noted in an earlier blog post, aircraft manufacturers have begun to produce twin-engine aircraft that are more efficient than the 747 yet can handle the same number of passengers. The Boeing 777-300ER (77W), for example, has 85% of the maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) as a 747-400. It can also hold near the same number of passengers — and it only has two engines. The 77W is newer, more efficient, and — most importantly — provides airlines with lower fuel costs. Gone are the days when the 747’s unparalleled capacity made it the choice for certain long-haul routes.

Why Not the 747-8?

There has been much made of the lack of success of the 747-8, Boeing’s newest incarnation of a classic. And while some have suggested that it was Boeing’s meek response to the A380 — which, despite outperforming the 747-8, hasn’t exactly been a resounding success — there are a number of factors at play (and it would take another article to cover that). Regardless, the 747-8 is never going to stem the tidal wave of long-haul twin-engine aircraft being purchased, so it’s understandable that it hasn’t been able to continue the 747 passenger jet legacy.

An Indisputable Impact

As outlined, there are many reasons that the Boeing 747 is being retired. However, while the importance of various factors could (and will) be debated for years to come, what’s not up for debate is its impact on aviation. From the 747-100’s maiden New York to London flight with Pan Am World Airways, to the development and debut of the 747-400, which would go on to become arguably the most iconic airliner of all time, it has withstood the test of time, and 2019 will mark 50 years since the type first took flight. I have even had the chance to fly on the type three times, and found each flight to be an incredible experience.

It will be a sad day when the last 747 lands for the final time. However, despite retirement of the type increasing, we are still a long way off from that. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy its remaining time in the air.

LATAM to Launch Route Between Boston and São Paulo

Last month, LATAM Brasil announced its intention to begin service to Boston Logan (BOS) from São Paulo Guarulhos (GRU). On Wednesday, the airline published its schedule, revealing four weekly round trip flights between Brazil’s largest city and the hub of New England.

The Details

LATAM will fly Boeing 767s on this route. The aircraft will leave GRU at 11:55 p.m. on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, arriving at BOS at 9:10 a.m. the following mornings. The return flights will depart BOS on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 6:05 p.m., arriving at GRU at 5:25 the following mornings.

Generally, international long-haul routes departing from the U.S. leave in the afternoon or early evening. Thus, as expected, the flight will be departing at the same time as a number of other international flights. However, unlike the majority of international flights arriving at Logan, the flight from São Paulo arriving early in the morning. As a result, those passengers won’t be stuck in customs lines as long as those arriving in the afternoon. So while a red-eye flight isn’t the best of times, at least the lines upon landing won’t be as severe.

Another interesting point: unlike long-haul flights between North America and Europe, where one leg (westbound) is significantly longer than the other (eastbound), the difference between the two legs of this flight don’t vary that much in terms of flight time, as it’s a north-south flight. As a result, there is not that much variance between the impact from the jetstream, which flows from west to east. The GRU-BOS leg will take 10 hours, 15 minutes, while BOS-GRU will be 10 hours, 20 minutes.

Reaction

This announcement comes on the heels of Colombian carrier Avianca launching Boston-Bogota in June of this year. That route was Logan’s first non-stop to South America and, to this point, it has done well. Massport CEO Thomas Glynn has been eager to land a flight to Brazil for a while, no pun intended. As such, this is a major coup.

Boston has seen a number of new international routes launched in recent years. While such an influx of new capacity can sometimes yield underwhelming returns, that isn’t the case in Boston. Hopefully, LATAM will be as successful as recent entrants into the various Boston markets.

Westbound Inconvenience: Why 757s are prone to transatlantic fuel stops

You’re flying along, looking out at the sky, and everything seems to be going smoothly. Suddenly, the captain comes on and makes an announcement, saying something along the lines of “we’re going to be diverting due to weather at our destination.” A collective groan falls over the cabin, and the plane begins an unexpected descent.

Having been on two different diverted flights, I’ve had this experience firsthand. And while I do enjoy the opportunity to add another landing (and takeoff) to my flight log, I can’t say I enjoy having my routine interrupted. Particularly when it comes to travel, I don’t like surprises — I prefer things to be predictable. Of course, this isn’t something you can prevent, so I’ve learned to get with it, whatever happens. Both of the diversions I’ve encountered have been due to weather. However, while it is the cause of a significant number of diversions, weather isn’t the only culprit: security issues, mechanical anomalies, and fuel are a few of the many causes that can send people to places they hadn’t planned on going.

Transatlantic Fuel Stops Fuel the Fire

Fuel, in particular, has caused a number of diversions in recent years — particularly with Boeing 757s flying westbound transatlantic flights. As the largest narrowbody aircraft, the 757 has a range of around 4,400 miles, which makes it comfortably suitable for transatlantic operations. A number of different medium-range, “thin” routes which wouldn’t be profitable with a widebody aircraft are possible thanks to the 757. Indeed, it makes a number of routes possible in similar fashion to the way the Boeing 787 makes long, “thin” routes more than just a pipe dream.

However, the 757 has also drawn the ire of a number of transatlantic travelers — particularly in the winter months. During that time, the headwinds of the jetstream are at their strongest, meaning that planes need more fuel than usual to compensate. And while widebodies generally don’t have an issue with this, the 757 doesn’t have the same fuel capacity that those larger planes do. Their range is usually good enough to make a transatlantic crossing without much issue, but they are much more prone to fuel diversions than their larger counterparts.

This frustration was the subject of a 2015 piece on Mashable, titled Why choosing the right airplane type is crucial in the wintertime. There are a number of other pieces, too, on the subject, including a piece in the Wall Street Journal, but those are behind a paywall. Regardless, the Mashable piece raises a number of interesting points, particularly that many simply choose the cheapest flight, regardless of other factors. This can be a dangerous game to play — and, in the case of a business traveler who needs to be somewhere at a given time, it can mean missing an obligation. Of course, that’s a dramatization, but I think my point is clear.

Not All Flights Are Equal

Some flights are more prone to diversions than others. For example, a sector that is around 3,000 miles in length, such as Aer Lingus’ Shannon, Ireland to Boston route (2,891 miles), does not see an incredible number of diversions. Start talking about routes in the neighborhood of 4,000 miles, however, and it’s a different story. This summer, AA203, a flight from Amsterdam to Philadelphia (3,715 miles) diverted to Bangor, ME a number of times. This fall, AA55, which goes from Manchester, England to Chicago O’Hare (3,826 miles) stops in Bangor with some regularity.

Sometimes, the carrier realizes before the flight that it isn’t able to make it on a full tank, and informs passengers of the impending disruption. And while it’s a nice gesture, as diversion-related surprises are not fun for most passengers, I can imagine it’s incredibly frustrating to be told of an impending diversion, whether in the air or on the ground.

Use Your Judgement

I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from flying transatlantic on a 757. On a number of routes, it’s the only aircraft that makes service viable — and for those routes, I would say absolutely take it. Moreover, the chance of having a fuel stop are far from a sure thing. That said, if there are other options at a comparable price when you are traveling, I might encourage you to think twice before taking a westbound 757 in the winter.