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Old June 28th, 2005, 07:44 PM   #1
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Airlines Gear Up for Ultralong Haul

Airlines gear up for ultralong haul
Barbara De Lollis and Barbara Hansen
27 June 2005
USA Today

It's getting easier to travel ultralong distances -- as long as 18 hours or 10,000 miles -- without having to make connecting flights. International carriers are ramping up offerings of 15-hour- plus flights to meet soaring demand largely in Asia, and to capture business travelers who don't mind paying extra for convenience.

Worldwide, the ultralong segment is growing faster than any other distance, a USA TODAY analysis shows. Roughly 75% of the 16 daily ultralong non-stop flights in the world this month involve a U.S. airport, the analysis shows.

The introduction of new long-range airplanes and the easing of government restrictions on air service are making the flights possible. Booming economies in China and India and the growth of affluent ethnic populations in the USA are fueling demand for non- stops.

For all the promise the ultralong-haul market shows, U.S. carriers have a tiny share -- even though they're relying on the expansion of flights abroad to escape their financial mess. Just two of the big six U.S. carriers -- Continental and United -- are flying ultralong routes in and out of the USA this month. Their flights represent fewer than 20% of all ultralong routes for June, the analysis shows. Most of the flights are offered by foreign carriers such as Singapore and Air Canada.

Operating flights of at least 15 hours requires certain long- range airplanes that most U.S. carriers lack, aviation consultant Craig Jenks says. "Right now, U.S. carriers are not financially in the condition to acquire a lot of new equipment," Jenks says. "That's why the lead is being taken by foreign carriers."

The danger in waiting to enter the market, he says, is that it gives rivals already providing service time to establish their brand and earn customer loyalty.

Finances aren't the only factor holding back U.S. carriers, aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia says. Foreign carriers such as Singapore Airlines have relied on long flights for a greater share of revenue, "whereas U.S. carriers are finally waking up to the fact that there's cash to be made here," he says.

There are exceptions. United has offered non-stop service between Chicago and Hong Kong for years. Continental, which started non- stop service between Newark, N.J., and Beijing this month, will add New Delhi service by November. In 2007, it plans to add a 15-hour flight to and from Shanghai.

Continental anticipated the global boom and began preparing for it a decade ago, Continental marketing executive Jim Compton says. The airline will be the first U.S. carrier to take delivery of the Boeing 787, which will fly as far as 10,000 miles. Northwest has also placed orders for the long-range Boeing jet.

"We feel we've positioned ourselves for the long haul," Compton says.
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