Why Doesn’t British Airways Fly the A380 to New York?

The notion of frequency over capacity rings true in a variety of places, but none more than on the world’s busiest international route: New York JFK – London Heathrow. Once known for being home to British Airways’ Concorde service, the route has remained alive and well since the supersonic aircraft was retired in 2003. Over 2.5 million individuals travel between the two cities annually, which amounts to 8,034 people riding on 16 round-trip flights daily.

The phrase “New York to London” is somewhat of a cliché when referring to international air travel, as the city pairing is undoubtedly the gold standard in terms of international routes that originate or terminate in the United States. Even the casual observer can understand the minor commotion that New York – London creates, given that each city is the largest in its respective nation. As such, it’s little wonder that the route attracts such high ridership.

Things Aren’t What they Seem

With such an inordinate number of passengers compared to other international city pairings, it would be easy to assume that New York – London would be a prime route for BA to operate the Airbus A380-800, which has a maximum capacity of 469 passengers. The A380’s capacity is 1.35 to 1.55 times greater than the number of passengers that a BA 747 carries. And given that other European carriers like Air France already operate the behemoth aircraft for one of its three daily New York – Paris flights, this would seem logical. However, there are a couple of differentiators that make the New York – London route unique, and thus have made BA maintain the status quo of operating a mix of 747s and 777s — as well as the daily, business-class only A318 that flies between JFK and London City Airport — rather than introducing the A380 on the route.

Competition

First, competition must be considered. While BA has the most number of daily round trips (six) between New York and London, it does not “own” that route. Not only does it have to compete with Delta (two round trips/day) and Virgin Atlantic (four) like in Boston, albeit on a larger scale, they also battle with American Airlines (three) and Kuwait Airways (one). If BA was the only carrier that operated the New York – London route, then it might have no choice but to operate the A380 for capacity reasons. Yet, while it is undoubtedly the “biggest” carrier between the two cities, in terms of both passengers flying it and number of flights, it does not have a monopoly in the same way that BA has a monopoly between London and Austin or Baltimore.

Furthermore, one must examine the number of people traveling on each individual flight between New York and London to understand the reasons for operating certain aircraft as opposed to others. Though less than half the number of people fly between New York and Paris as do New York and London, the load factor, defined as the number of passengers in a given period divided by total available seats, is actually higher on the New York – Paris route, as 3,695 people have a choice of six round-trips per day — three operated by Air France, two flown by American, and one provided by Delta.

Fleet and Frequency

Second, we have to consider the resources and frequency, and how they relate to consumer behavior. While certainly robust in terms of the number of long-haul aircraft that it has, BA’s A380 fleet isn’t large. At present time, BA only has nine A380s, while it has 43 747s, 46 777-200s, and 11 777-300ERs. Given that it has significantly fewer A380s than 747s and 777s combined, as well as the fact that the A380 dwarfs the largest 747’s capacity by around one-third, it is better served using its limited number of A380s on high-density, low-frequency routes.

High-Density and Low Frequency Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

If you’re wondering how a route could be high-density yet low-frequency, there are two reasons. First, there’s a correlation between density and frequency: all other things equal, more flights equal less people on each flight.

Second, we need to look at consumer behavior. Unlike in New York, where businesspeople “hop” across the pond for an urgent meeting before returning the next day (or the same day), businesspeople travelling between London and places like Hong Kong, Johannesburg, or Los Angeles are generally travelling for longer periods of time — for both logistical reasons, as well intangibles, such as the fact that the convenience of and jet lag between Los Angeles and London are, respectively, significantly less than and greater than New York and London. Therefore, those traveling between Los Angeles and London are likely — and I say likely, because there will always be anomalies — to plan out their trips further in advance, and, thus, do not need as many options.

Frequency Reduction Isn’t the Answer

While it would be understandable if BA were to reduce the number of daily round trips from six to four, and put all of them all on A380s, there are a couple of issues with this. First, by decreasing the number of flights, BA would — as we’ve established — be decreasing frequency. And while reducing congestion would ultimately be a byproduct of this, reality is that reducing the daily operations count by six (three landings, three takeoffs) wouldn’t have a major effect on traffic.

More importantly, it would likely decrease customer satisfaction. Though reducing the aggregate total of round-trips from 16 to 14 isn’t a huge change, one must keep in mind that it is likely that many of these flyers, particularly first- and business-class customers, are loyal to BA. As such, taking away options for faithful consumers wouldn’t be smart. The investor on Wall Street needs to be able to hop on the next plane out if need be—he’s not going to want to wait until tomorrow because the last flight to London left an hour ago.

Trouble With Terminal 7

Another issue with BA bringing the A380 to the Big Apple is that Terminal 7 – the home of BA at JFK – is not currently capable of handling an A380. This is symbolic of a larger problem, as, unlike the 747, the A380 generally necessitates a certain amount of infrastructural modification. In JFK’s case, it would have to move BA to another terminal in order for the airline to be able to utilize its A380s in New York.

A Unique Case

This isn’t to say that BA could not fly the A380 on its New York – London route and have it be profitable. As previously said, Air France uses it to fly to and from Paris, while only transporting 46 percent of the passengers. Furthermore, Lufthansa operates an A380 on one of its two daily flights between New York and Frankfurt, proving that New York does indeed have the demand to operate the behemoth aircraft on a variety of different routes. Yet the competition and consumer behavior are differentiating factors here — aside from itself, Air France has just two other airlines and three other flights to compete with.

Moreover, while Lufthansa technically competes with Singapore Airlines, who also operates an A380 on the JFK – Frankfurt route, the majority of passengers flying that segment are continuing on to Singapore without disembarking in Germany. BA, however, has four airlines and 10 flights. Furthermore, in addition to its daily A380, Air France operates one Airbus A330-300 and one 777-200/-300. The fact that it operates other, (relatively) smaller aircraft, as well as the fact that it isn’t required to fly as often as a New York – London carrier does, makes operating two (again, relatively) smaller jets as well as one A380 an economically sound decision. BA, however, must strike a balance between frequency and capacity, and must also take its consumers behavior into account.

The Future

Regardless of this analysis and the compelling case for British Airways to continue to operate a mix of 747s and 777s between New York and London, it doesn’t mean that the airline is immune to eventually bringing in the A380 on one or more of its daily flights, though perhaps a service made up entirely of A380s would be a bit of a stretch.

In fact, I think it it is quite likely that — as BA grows its A380 fleet and demand for New York – London flights changes parallel to population changes — BA will explore and perhaps implement A380s between New York and London. However, for the time being, the airline seems to feel that it is best served by operating a mix of 747s and 777s on that particular route because, ultimately, it is those two planes that best serve travelers’ needs. And as long as passengers are happy and the airline continues to fill flights, it is likely to stay this way.