North Atlantic travel is in high demand again


CAPA ANALYST PERSPECTIVE - a new series where CAPA - Centre for Aviation's analyst team provide their personal views on a hot topic facing aviation around the world.

Initially a novelty for the rich and famous and a significant advantage over the sea travel alternative, the North Atlantic has now turned into a mass market with multiple city pairs connected directly.

Many of these major markets are served multiple times daily with widebodies, while other thinner markets are being supported by the arrival of longer-range narrowbodies.

The North Atlantic is now one of the world's most lucrative long-haul travel markets and the appetite of airlines to serve this air travel corridor remains as strong as ever.

Richard Maslen, Head of Analysis at CAPA - Centre for Aviation shares his viewpoint.

  • The North Atlantic has evolved from a niche market to a mass market with direct city pair connections.
  • Major markets are served multiple times daily with widebodies, while thinner markets see longer-range narrowbodies.
  • The North Atlantic is a lucrative long-haul travel market with strong airline interest.
  • Scheduled commercial aircraft movements across the Atlantic have rebounded post-COVID, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.
  • Antitrust immunised joint ventures dominate the North Atlantic market, with alliances playing a key role.
  • New routes and startups are emerging in 2024, indicating continued growth and competition in the North Atlantic market.

There are perhaps no air routes more travelled and more important in the Western world than those connecting the US and Canada with Europe.

From the early days of commercial air travel, airline entrepreneurs have looked to establish routes across the North Atlantic.

Many famous brands such as Braniff International Airways, Laker Airways, Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines are remembered for their operations on this competitive air corridor.

In 2022, while many international markets were still recovering from the pandemic, scheduled commercial aircraft movements across the Atlantic had already returned to pre-COVID patterns, although levels were still down on 2019.

In 2023, the market reached new highs, surpassing 19,300 weekly movements for the first time on five separate occasions through the summer according to CAPA - Centre for Aviation analysis of OAG data.

The published schedules for the first five months of 2024 show growth on 2023 and suggest that even accounting for the inevitable network churn, that 2023 peak should be scaled during summer 2024.

The importance of the transatlantic to the world's airlines was evident in the year's leading up to the pandemic with the number of movements on the peak week of each year increasing by 41.9% between 2012 and 2019, from 13,589 to 19,281.

In 2020, as COVID-19 struck, weekly flight levels fell to not more than 4,050, doubling in 2021 to not more than 8,950 weekly flights following a secondary peak in the winter holiday season.

The 2022 level was reminiscent of 2017, with the 2023 performance a 11.9% rise on 2022.

There were some new entrants (US-based JetBlue Airways and Norway-based Norse Atlantic Airways) and some departures (the biggest being Norwegian), but the North Atlantic's skies remain dominated by the antitrust immunised joint ventures (JVs) of major carriers either side of the Atlantic, whose share rose during the pandemic but is eroding slightly again as new entrants and growing LCC operations have entered the market.

These JVs account for around three-quarters of the flights across the North Atlantic and are mainly based around the leading members of the global branded alliances.

The JV within oneworld consists of American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Finnair (since 2013) and Aer Lingus (since 2021).

The JV within the Star Alliance comprises United Airlines, the Lufthansa Group mainline airlines and Air Canada.

The SkyTeam members of the third immunised JV are Delta Air Lines, Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic.

The JVs remain in a strong position-indeed, they could be strengthened further if the planned acquisitions of Air Europa by IAG, ITA Airways by Lufthansa and SAS by Air France-KLM are approved and the airlines being acquired are brought into the JVs.

North American airlines occupy three of the top four places in the flight movements' ranking in the North Atlantic market, but European airlines have a bigger overall share, making it the continent's most important long-haul region.

In the peak week for North Atlantic movements in 2023 (week commencing 07-Aug-2023), United (with 1,330 departures and a 12.8% share) and Delta (1,230 departures; 12.7% share) dominated ahead of American Airlines (902; 9.3%), British Airways (716; 7.4%) and Air Canada (620; 6.4%). Lufthansa (520; 5.4%), Air France (486; 5.0%), Virgin Atlantic (350; 3.6%), Air Transat (336; 3.5%) and Turkish Airlines (319; 3.3%) made up the top 10.

There were a further 11 airlines offering more than 100 weekly departures (Icelandair, Aer Lingus, KLM, TAP Air Portugal, Iberia, SAS, SWISS, Condor Flugdienst, ITA Airways, Norse Atlantic Airways and LOT Polish Airlines), with 20-plus more airlines offering more than daily movements.

Airlines are adding new routes in 2024 while startups such as Belfast, Northern Ireland-based Fly-Atlantic and London-based Global Airlines are eyeing the market, with the first promising low-cost narrowbody service and the second basing its business model on operating Airbus A380s. The challenges are obvious and the competition will be strong.

What is clear is that the North Atlantic remains one of the world's most significant air corridors and its skies will get busier in the years to come.

This viewpoint was originally published in the Dec-2023 issue of Air Transport World

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