Warren Jones, aviation development manager for the Atlanta airport, pictured outside the headquarters of Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi.

While cutting routes has been the global trend for 2009, two Middle Eastern airlines will consider new cargo and passenger service to Atlanta if the airline industry shows signs of recovery next year, an airport official told GlobalAtlanta.

Although “both said they won’t make a decision this year,” Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is “on the radar” of Dubai-based Emirates Airlines and Abu Dhabi‘s Etihad Airways, said Warren Jones, the airport’s aviation development manager.

Mr. Jones returned on July 29 from a four-day business trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with leaders from the cargo and passenger divisions of both companies.

The main goal was to pitch Emirates on a new cargo route that would take goods from Dubai through Atlanta to Dallas and back. To make their case, Mr. Jones and Dallas-Fort Worth Airport officials presented a 94-page document laden with statistics showing the flow of goods between the southern U.S. and the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Normally, Hartsfield doesn’t team up with other U.S. airports to court business.

“We’ve never done a joint presentation with an airport, but airlines have been doing joint service for some time and have been very successful,” Mr. Jones said, citing a six-day-per-week cargo route that Hong Kong‘s Cathay Pacific flies to Atlanta after a stop in Dallas. That route will resume to daily service in the fall.

On the day he arrived, Mr. Jones traveled from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, to meet with officials from the country’s national airline, Etihad Airways.

During a long lunch with Etihad’s head of network planning, Mr. Jones learned about the airline’s plans for the next few years and how it has been affected by the global recession. The company will receive 50 new aircraft over the next five years and has “publicly indicated that Atlanta is on their short list for new service into North America,” Mr. Jones said.

Having met Etihad officials during a 2007 Middle East trip, Mr. Jones saw it as an opportunity to build the trust and camaraderie he says is necessary to win business in the airline industry.

“Anybody can go and try to sell something, but actually knowing the client and building that trust up, that’s one of the most important things,” Mr. Jones said.

He employed a similar strategy with Emirates, where he returned to meet with the head of network planning and share the ways Hartsfield has improved since their last meeting.

A lot has changed in two years. The airport’s concessions areas and stores have undergone a complete renovation, security lanes have been expanded and improved, the new CONRAC car rental facility is soon to open and most importantly for the airlines, the new $1.4 billion international terminal is under construction, Mr. Jones said.

“If you don’t have a place to park your airplane, where can it go?” he said.

For Emirates, that might be a bigger problem than for most. The airline has more than 50 outstanding orders for Airbus A380s. The giant, double-decker passenger planes seat nearly 500 people and cost $300-$400 million. Emirates only has seven of them currently in service, but when the company took delivery of the first one about a year ago, it announced plans to buy 60 smaller aircraft from Airbus to meet its appetite for expansion.

As the new planes come on line, the airline will be looking for routes with substantial traffic, like the Delta Air Lines Inc. nonstop flight from Atlanta to Dubai.

“It’s still going. I actually flew on it, and it was packed,” Mr. Jones said. “The traffic volumes are growing, and while Delta is a great success story we’re always looking for new capacity for regions that are underserved.”

Whether cargo or passenger, new routes could provide big boosts to the airport and the region. Mr. Jones has estimated that a weekly cargo flight adds about $10 million in impact to the regional economy over the course of a year.

Cargo volume has been down this year as the recession in the U.S. has dented consumer demand, but positive signs have emerged recently, Mr. Jones said. German carrier Deutsche Lufthansa AG, which bases its cargo operations in Atlanta, is adding weekly services to Seattle and Los Angeles. Taiwan-based China Airlines plans to add two more weekly flights to Atlanta starting Aug. 1. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...