For the world’s busiest airport — and one with a new terminal dedicated to flights beyond U.S. borders — Hartsfield-Jackson International sometimes doesn’t seem all that international.
Aside from Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines’ quartet of partner carriers, just three other foreign carriers have served the airport in recent years.
That number jumped to five this spring with the arrival of Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways, which both participate in a financial incentive program launched two years ago by airport officials to help attract more overseas airlines.
Speaking at a launch ceremony in May, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed acknowledged there’s “a need to diversify the carriers that we have at Hartsfield-Jackson.”
“I think we have certainly shown our faith and confidence in our relationship with Delta but we also understand that we are in an international marketplace where having competition and connectivity is going to help strengthen our region and our state’s economy,” Reed said.
Hartsfield-Jackson still boasts service to about 75 international destinations, but limited options can mean higher fares.
Several other big U.S. airports have bigger rosters of foreign carriers. While Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest, coastal hubs in New York, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have long been far ahead of Atlanta in foreign carrier service by attracting the likes of carriers ranging from Singapore Airlines to Swiss International Air Lines.
Even heartland giant Chicago O’Hare — long a rival of Hartsfield-Jackson — has 37 foreign flag carriers. O’Hare has the advantage of two large airline hubs, for American and United, which it has been able to leverage “to bring in numerous international carriers,” according to Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride.
Still, 17 of O’Hare’s foreign flag carriers are not affiliated with either American’s oneworld alliance or United’s Star Alliance.
“The legacy hubs tend to be the historical gateways, and that’s where you see the majority of foreign carrier service,” said Port Washington, NY-based airline consultant Robert W. Mann. Other hub cities like Houston have had the advantage of the inherently international energy industry attracting foreign carriers.
Dallas-Fort Worth International, another inland hub airport, has 15 flag carriers according to its website, most of which are not part of the oneworld alliance with hometown giant American.
Delta’s massive hub drives dozens of international routes to and from Atlanta. But its dominance has also discouraged competing foreign carriers.
In the airline business, without a massive population base like New York or the “destination” appeal of cities like Miami or San Francisco, it’s difficult for an airline to fill a plane large enough to fly a long international route — unless it can funnel connecting passengers to the route.
Delta and the foreign partner airlines in its SkyTeam alliance have the ability to do that with Delta’s hundreds of domestic flights to and from Atlanta that make up the largest airline hub in the world.
It’s far more difficult for other airlines to do so in Atlanta.
A couple of years ago, the Atlanta airport began offering its first incentives to draw more international routes.
Since 2014, the airport has paid out more than $340,000 under the program, which waives landing fees temporarily and offers matching promotional funds.
The airlines in the incentive program include Virgin Atlantic, Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways. Cargo carriers China Cargo Airlines, Air Bridge Cargo and CAL Cargo are also getting incentives in the program.
Newer, more efficient planes that can fly long distances without as many seats to fill could increase Atlanta’s ability to attract more international flights in the years to come, Mann said. For example, Delta has said it aims to bring back its Atlanta-Shanghai route with the help of new Airbus A350 jets, after struggling to make it profitable with other aircraft in the past.
A recent study released by Oxford Economics and Visa forecasts a 35 percent increase in international travel by 2025, with about 282 million households planning at least one international trip per year.
International travel “will become more common and attainable in the future,” with increasing income around the world creating a new “traveling class,” according to the study’s findings. Travel spending will be highest in China by 2025 at $255.4 billion annually, with the United States expected to be in second place at $134.1 billion.
Atlanta passengers, particularly business travelers, have long benefited from Delta’s international route network, Mann said. But travelers looking for discounts have had fewer competitors to choose from.
“The hometown carrier is both appreciated and reviled depending upon whether you are a schedule-seeking corporate travel customer… in which case it’s the best thing that’s ever happened,” Mann said. “On the other hand, for the price seekers, yeah, you’re going to pay a premium.”
But now, the international travel market in Atlanta has grown “as the Georgia economy has grown, and as the surrounding economy has grown,” Mann said, “and as it becomes a destination, and a new point on foreign carrier networks.”