Business

RDU’s busiest airline expects to get busier. Here’s how it could grow at RDU.

Delta’s inaugural flight to Paris on May 12, 2016, received a water cannon salute. The daily flight has been upgraded from a Boeing 757 seen here to a larger, more comfortable Boeing 767.
Delta’s inaugural flight to Paris on May 12, 2016, received a water cannon salute. The daily flight has been upgraded from a Boeing 757 seen here to a larger, more comfortable Boeing 767. N&O file photo

If there were any doubts that the Triangle could support a daily nonstop flight to Paris when Delta Air Lines started the route two years ago, they’ve long been laid to rest.

Demand has been strong, and Delta has upgraded the plane used on the flight to the larger and more comfortable Boeing 767. Joe Esposito, Delta’s senior vice president for network planning, credits the Triangle’s business and institutional travelers with making the flight a success.

“When we’re looking for markets, we’re looking for business markets for trans-Atlantic,” Esposito said. “Because almost any idiot can make money in the summer to Europe, but it really takes a partnership and support to make it work on a year-around basis. And the business community brings us that.”

Esposito was speaking to about 250 business people and others at an event put on by the Regional Transportation Alliance, a group affiliated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

Delta is the busiest airline at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, accounting for nearly a third of passengers that board planes here. The Triangle is one of Delta’s three “focus cities,” along with Cincinnati and Boston, that operate as mini-hubs; about 10 percent of Delta’s passengers at RDU are catching a connecting flight through the airport, Esposito said.

Esposito said RDU became a focus for Delta naturally, as the airline added flights to meet demand. The airline has doubled its operations at RDU over the last decade, and now has more than 500 departures a week to 27 nonstop destinations.

“We are followers of what you do,” Esposito said. “We don’t make markets. You make markets. We’re happy to provide the seats.”

Delta recently announced it would begin offering three daily nonstop flights to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport next April, the first time the airline has made that connection since 1978. Esposito announced no new flights Friday, but he said there would be newer and larger aircraft on some routes here, as Delta retires its MD-88s and phases out its use of 50-seat regional jets.

Members of the audience asked Esposito about other coming changes, including:

Will Delta offer a nonstop flight to Portland, Oregon? Esposito said Delta has been beefing up its western network in recent years and described Portland as an important destination. But he said the airline will likely first add additional daily nonstop flights to its hub in Salt Lake City and to Seattle, which offers connections to several cities in Asia.

Will Delta add more flights to Europe from RDU, particularly London, where Heathrow airport is expanding and where American Airlines already offers a daily nonstop from the Triangle? Esposito said it would not be unreasonable to add more nonstops to Europe, but said Delta is concentrating on improving its one-stop connections to international destinations from the Triangle. He noted that 70 percent of passengers on the Paris flight take connecting flights to another city, which include any of 78 cities in Europe, 36 in Africa, seven in the Middle East and four in India. He also said the airline is expanding its nonstops to Europe from Boston that RDU travelers find convenient.

Given the growing relationships between the Triangle and India, will Delta ever offer a nonstop from RDU to that country? Not likely, Esposito said. The airline recently announced it would resume nonstop flights from the U.S. to India late next year, most likely between Atlanta and Mumbai. The planes on that flight will seat more than 300, he said, which is too large to fill from RDU.

Esposito said Delta relies on the business community to help it plan future routes. While he didn’t mention Amazon, Apple or any other companies by name, he said it’s helpful to know what businesses are being recruited to the Triangle and how that might boost demand for travelers.

“We have plenty of data in our industry,” he said. “What we don’t have is that insight that you guys have into your market as you’re pursuing other companies and big companies.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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