It might be easy for Atlantans to take for granted that their local airport links them with the world, but from Miguel Southwell’s perspective, it never hurts to have that point hammered home.
The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport general manager was on hand Friday along with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for a press conference on the airfield welcoming Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic, which started flights between Atlanta and London Sunday through a partnership with Delta Air Lines Inc.
“When Virgin Atlantic chooses Atlanta to be one of its destinations, it makes a statement,” Mr. Southwell told Global Atlanta. “It perpetuates that message that we’re a global airport.”
Mr. Branson, who descended the steps from Virgin’s freshly delivered Boeing 787 dancing with a gospel choir singing “London Calling”, brings a fresh (and famous) face to Atlanta, representing a feather in the cap for the Atlanta airport, which under Mr. Southwell is pulling out all the stops to bring more long-haul routes by international carriers.
Virgin Atlantic will be the first airline to take advantage of a new incentive program through which the airport waives landing fees for up to a year for airlines starting nonstop service to international destinations. Mr. Southwell estimated that the yearly landing fees for a daily flight on a wide-body aircraft could be worth more than $600,000. They can also qualify for marketing assistance up to $25,000.
Still, Virgin Atlantic could be considered an easy win for the airport, considering that it’s 49-percent-owned by Delta, which occupies more than 70 percent of the gate space at Hartsfield-Jackson. Atlanta-based Delta paid $360 million for its stake in the British airline, largely to gain better access to coveted trans-Atlantic landing slots at the highly congested Heathrow Airport in London.
Virgin Atlantic, meanwhile, benefits from its ability to reach more than 100 destinations throughout the U.S. and beyond by stopping in Atlanta, said Craig Kreeger, CEO of Virgin Atlantic. The two carriers’ connection volumes – travelers transferring from one airline to the other – have increased by 50 percent over the past year, he said.
Asked about slots at Heathrow, Mr. Branson said opening the route to Atlanta came at the expense of one of Virgin Atlantic’s Asia flights.
“Sadly, no pain no gain, but Atlanta is one of the beneficiaries of us having to take some pain as well,” he said, noting that the airline is lobbying the British government to build more capacity at Heathrow.
Another flight to London will be launched from Atlanta in the spring, bringing the number of people flying between the two cities on Virgin Atlantic next year to about 160,000. Around the same time, Virgin Atlantic will bring back a nonstop previously operated by Delta from Atlanta to Manchester.
Atlanta travelers looking beyond the United Kingdom can also use Virgin’s broader network, despite its being pared back as the airline seeks a return to profitability. Virgin recently announced plans to cut routes from London to Tokyo and Mumbai while keeping its service to Delhi, India. It also offers connections to Hong Kong, Johannesburg and Shanghai.
Mr. Kreeger, the CEO, emphasized the Virgin Atlantic experience, especially the new 787, which won’t be used on the Atlanta route just yet. The airline is spending £300 million on a upgrades designed to enhance the customer experience, starting with satellite-based Wi-Fi on all flights. It also boasts a standing bar in upper class and a premium economy product that Mr. Kreeger used on the way across the pond.
“Today is the beginning of a new era for Virgin Atlantic, with a new airplane, a new destination, and a really, really bright future,” Mr. Kreeger said.
Mr. Southwell said it’s great that Virgin can help connect Atlantans to broader regions, but he reiterated the importance of nonstop flights to emerging economies. Greater choice for airline travelers – without the need for connections – will lead more businesses to set up shop and more tourists to visit Atlanta, enhancing what Mr. Southwell sees as the primary role of the airport: economic development.
He said that unlike Heathrow, the Atlanta airport faces no capacity problems that would hinder future air service expansion. The 787 can pull into any gate, while the airport only has one set of gates in Concourse E fitted for the Airbus A380, the European-made super jumbo jet with two levels. Plans are in the works for another A380 gate to be outfitted at Concourse F, Mr. Southwell told Global Atlanta.
Virgin’s festivities in Atlanta didn’t stop with the press conference. Mr. Branson headed over to the St. Regis in Buckhead for a closed-door business seminar with Sara Blakely, founder of Atlanta-based Spanx, who has built a friendship with the British billionaire. Virgin Atlantic then held an invitation-only party at Ventana’s downtown, where attendees were graced with a panoramic view of the Atlanta skyline. A rooftop bar was outfitted with a display of illuminated umbrellas emblazoned with the Union Jack. DJs from Rudimental, a group that performed in the sky on the way over from London, kept the party going well into the night.