Delta likes Africa, Latin America for more international growth

By Maria Saporta
Friday, January 7, 2011

From Ghana and Senegal to the Netherland Antilles, travelers can now fly nonstop from Atlanta to each of these destinations on Delta Air Lines Inc. And starting Jan. 20, you can add Luanda, Angola, to the list.

Delta’s international growth out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the past five years has helped transform the global profile of metro Atlanta. And Delta and Hartsfield-Jackson are showing no signs of slowing their international growth.

Quite the contrary.

In April 2012, Hartsfield-Jackson is scheduled to open the new Maynard Jackson International Terminal on the east side of the airport, which will increase the number of widebody international gates from 28 to 40.

That facility is expected to propel the international growth of both Delta and Hartsfield-Jackson.

“Now the play for Delta is really overseas, and the focus is international,” said Richard Anderson, the airline’s chairman and CEO, in an interview. “Atlanta will still be a really important part of our international growth — especially to Central and South America and Africa.”

Delta also is delighted to be resuming non-stop service from Atlanta to Shanghai, China, later this spring with two weekly flights. As Anderson explained: “China is just booming.”

To really comprehend Delta’s international growth consider that in 1996 — the year that Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics — Delta flew to only 12 international destinations out of Atlanta. Today, it is flying to 79 international destinations out of Hartsfield-Jackson. (Because of the economic slowdown, that is a slight decrease from its peak in 2008, when it was flying to 85 destinations).

Historically, Delta had been focused on European destinations out of Atlanta. Then it increased its service to Latin America. And recently it has discovered the opportunities that exist in Africa.

For example, the longest non-stop flight out of Atlanta is to Johannesburg, South Africa, with a distance of 8,433 miles — a route that was particularly successful during last year’s World Cup. Its flights to Lagos, Nigeria, also have been especially strong.

“There’s some very profitable flying there — especially the west coast of Africa,” Anderson said. “It’s really a resources-rich part of the world. It will be a continuing growth area for us.”

And when Delta bought Northwest Airlines, it also acquired its routes to Asia and the Orient. But the distances from Atlanta to Asia do not lend themselves to non-stop service, so there usually is one stop along the way.

“With the Northwest merger, you have all these pieces of the globe coming together, bringing it all in alignment,” said Bob Cortelyou, Delta’s senior vice president of network planning.

Cortelyou acknowledged that Delta was not always bullish on international growth.

“Delta had that Southern regional mind-set,” Cortelyou said. “They were focused on domestic routes. The world grew up around them, and then they had to play catch-up.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration, remembered how frustrated he was by the lack of interest Delta had in international expansion when he ran the city in the 1980s.

“When I first became mayor, they told me they were a regional airline with a few national routes,” Young said in an interview. “I told them you need to be international.”

After his term as mayor, Young was elected to be a Delta director in 1994 and served on that board for 10 years.

“I fought with them the whole time I was on the board about more international flights,” Young said, adding that he kept pushing them to fly to Africa. “Now one of the busiest flights they have is to Lagos, Nigeria.” Now that it has had such strong international success, Young said he thinks that “Delta gets it.”

Cortelyou said that 40 percent of Delta’s revenue now comes from its international routes, and the goal is that eventually half of its revenues will be international.

The numbers show why Delta is focusing on international. During the peak 2010 summer travel season, Delta had 229 total destinations from Atlanta with 79 being international and 150 being domestic. So international flights tend to generate more revenue and often are more profitable than domestic routes.

Anderson reinforced Delta’s commitment to growing internationally out of Atlanta when he and the city were marketing the bonds for the new terminal to rating agencies, according to Louis Miller, Hartsfield-Jackson’s general manager.
“Atlanta was still their major focus,” Miller said, “and international has definitely been their focus.”

About 10 percent of Hartsfield-Jackson’s traffic is international passengers; and international traffic in November was up 7 percent compared with November 2009.

“The good thing is that international traffic is growing faster than the domestic traffic,” Miller said. “It’s not only Delta, but all the international carriers.”
And that translates into an economic advantage for Atlanta and Georgia, according to Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

“All the international business activity we have done has been riding the coattails of Delta,” Williams said. “Atlanta is the net beneficiary. Their global reach is a huge competitive advantage for us.”

Five years ago, Sekisui-SPR was looking for the best place to put its Americas headquarters, and the international flights out of Atlanta gave the city the edge.

“The convenience of Hartsfield-Jackson was the main reason for us to set up operations in Atlanta,” said Jerry Botts, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Sekisui SPR Americas LLC, which has its offices on Cascade Road near Interstate 285. “We wanted to be convenient to the airport, not only for us, but for our customers.”

Cortelyou said Delta’s international flights have helped put “Atlanta on the map” for conferences, tourism and business investment.

And as Delta and Hartsfield-Jackson continue their international growth, Atlanta will be the beneficiary.
“We now have all four corners of the world connecting through Atlanta,” Cortelyou said. “We used to talk about serving Columbia, S.C. Now we talk about connecting to Colombia, South America.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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