Fuel Prices Ground Flights From Hartford To Europe
By ERIC GERSHON | Courant Staff Writer
June 28, 2008
The decision by Northwest Airlines to cancel its year-old flight between Hartford and Amsterdam squashes what Connecticut leaders hailed as a dream come true, a path to Europe that went beyond travel to stimulate commerce with the rest of the world.
Launched with great hoopla last July 1, the flight was the first nonstop transatlantic route to Europe from Bradley International Airport in decades. It ends Oct. 2.
The news from Northwest, posted on its website late Thursday and confirmed Friday, came less than 48 hours after Delta Air Lines said it would cut its Bradley to Los Angles route, Connecticut's only nonstop connection to the West Coast.
Both airlines cited overwhelming fuel costs as the sole reason for ending the flights. Delta and Northwest are merging, but both said that was not a factor.
Suddenly, as regional airports around the nation face service cutbacks, the Hartford region loses its only direct flights to crucial, distant points. The one-two punch underscores the region's tenuous position in the global competition for economic development and reflects the airline industry's circumstances as oil tops $140 a barrel.
"It's a step backwards," said Oz Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance, the regional chamber of commerce. "There's no way to sugarcoat it."
The Amsterdam flight was the newer of the two vanishing routes, and it served as a greater selling point for people trying to pitch Hartford as a place worth being, he said.
"As important as L.A. is," Griebel said, "there's a little bit of magic in being able to say you can get nonstop service to Europe."
Hopes were high that the flights, especially the Amsterdam route, would generate not just buzz but business activity. It's hard to measure how much economic benefit has actually happened, especially given the short duration of Northwest's service to Europe.
Northwest would not release any information about the popularity or profitability of its Hartford-Amsterdam flight, but a spokeswoman expressed confidence in market demand for the route and blamed fuel prices entirely.
"Under more reasonable fuel prices, this flight was building the kind of market that makes for a successful route," said spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo Shannon.
Bradley and regional officials offered an incentive package worth $650,000 to keep the flight alive, said Kiran Jain, Bradley's director of route development and the person perhaps most responsible for bringing Amsterdam service to Hartford. The airline refused, she said. Northwest had no comment on the offer.
The 160-seat 757s Northwest has been flying on the route are frequently 80 percent full or better, except in the winter months, Jain said.
ING, the Dutch financial services firm that employs about 2,000 people in Greater Hartford, regularly put executives on the Amsterdam flight, spokesman Philip Margolis said Friday, but not every day. Most ING employees in the area never visit the corporation's world headquarters outside Amsterdam.
"Most people can see that this is reflective of a much broader industry issue," Margolis said, referring to the airline industry's struggle to manage rising fuel prices.
But hope for the flight was based less on direct access to Amsterdam than on the access the city's busy Schiphol Airport would provide. From Schiphol, travelers can fly directly to scores of cities in Europe, Asia and Africa.
For Hartford-based United Technologies Corp., which touts the global footprint of its operations and frequently sends employees overseas, the Amsterdam flight helped minimize travel time by eliminating trips to airports in Boston and New York. UTC, which sent a public relations team to Bradley for the launch of the Amsterdam service, did not comment on the flight's demise.
After Oct. 2, Connecticut travelers will probably again drive to Boston or New York for transatlantic flights. Or they'll board in Bradley and connect in another U.S. city to fly overseas.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's spokesman issued a statement saying, "As soon as fuel prices show any sign of stabilizing, Bradley Airport's route development team will be speaking with transatlantic carriers again."
"Everything looks great from our side," said Jain. "But we're not responsible for operating a fleet of 757s and making sure that each and every one of them is profitable."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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