Indianapolis airport tries ‘long-term strategy’ to land nonstop London flights

The Indianapolis Airport Authority is working to land nonstop service to London—but it might be years before those efforts show results, an airport official told board members on Friday.

The airport offers nonstop flights to 43 destinations, but only three of them are international. Those include flights to Toronto and seasonal service to Cancun, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

Earlier this year, the airport teamed up with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the Indy Chamber to form a task force aimed at securing flights to London.

In order to convince an airline to add the service, though, the task force must show that Indianapolis could fill those planes with business and leisure travelers.

“This is a bit of a long-term strategy,” said Marsha Stone, the airport’s senior director of commercial enterprise. Stone gave a presentation on the topic Friday during the airport authority’s monthly board of directors meeting.

In comparison, Stone said, it took Indianapolis three years to land nonstop flights to San Francisco, and it took 2.5 years to secure flights to Seattle. San Francisco service began in 2014. The Seattle flights are scheduled to begin in May, when Alaska Airlines begins serving the Indianapolis airport.

How long might it take before Indianapolis lands nonstop London flights? Stone said Austin, Texas, worked for five or six years to land service to London, but she hopes it wouldn’t take that long here. Nonstop Austin-to-London service began in March 2014.

Statistics suggest that there is a demand for nonstop flights to London, Stone said. On average, 47 London-bound passengers fly out of Indianapolis every day. Another 363 fly to destinations in Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa—all places that can be reached via a London connection, Stone said. 

Now, Stone said, the task force plans to gather more specific demand data. This will include meeting one-on-one with local employers to identify which area businesses might use Indianapolis-to-London flights. England-based Rolls-Royce Corp. is one obvious example, Stone said, but there are others, too.

Airlines are especially keen on attracting business travelers, Stone said, because those travelers tend to purchase higher-priced business-class tickets as opposed to cheaper coach fares. It would cost an airline about $80 million per year to provide international service between Indianapolis and London, Stone said.

The task force will also gather more information on travel between Indianapolis and Europe; and it will study tourism opportunities between Indianapolis and Europe.

The effort faces several challenges, Stone told the board.

For one thing, Indianapolis is not the only city vying for London flights. Stone said—Nashville and St. Louis are direct competitors.

Another factor, Stone said, is that British travelers are not as familiar with Indianapolis as they are with other U.S. destinations—work remains to be done if Indianapolis wants to attract more British tourism.

And “alliance allegiance” is another issue, Stone said. If Indianapolis secures London flights on a different airline than passengers now use to reach London, will those passengers be willing to switch? Indianapolis is pursuing both its existing carriers and new carriers for the London service.

While securing a transatlantic flight is a top priority, Stone said, the airport is also working to add domestic service.

The airport’s top two domestic targets are San Diego and Portland, Oregon, neither of which is now served nonstop from Indianapolis.

Alaska Airlines serves both of these markets, Stone noted.

During her presentation, Stone also highlighted the passenger growth Indianapolis has seen over the past year. Between January and June, she said, Indianapolis saw 12 percent growth in the number of outbound passengers as compared with the same period in 2015. During that same time period, the average growth rate among all U.S. airports was about 7 percent.

Through the end of October, 3.5 million passengers have boarded planes in Indianapolis. That’s a rise of 8 percent over the same period in 2015.

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