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British Airways has used the Boeing 787-8 for its daily nonstop London-Austin flight since March 2014. PHOTO by PINAR ISTEK/REPORTING TEXAS

by RACHEL PHUA
For Reporting Texas

AUSTIN — The capitol city’s primary airport is flying high this year.

In March, British Airways launched a daily Austin-London nonstop flight — the first transatlantic flight for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Monthly passenger traffic on the flight jumped from 7,170 in March to more than 10,000 in August.

Through August, international air cargo is up 84 percent over the same period last year, with British Airways providing much of the increase, according to the most recent airport figures. The passenger jets carry freight in their bellies.

Now city leaders have their sights on landing more international flights, with an Austin-Tokyo route high on the priority list. It would open Austin to 175 destinations worldwide. Narita International Airport and Tokyo Haneda Airport fly to 103 and 72 destinations, respectively.

Airports covet international flights because they bring economic growth and investment, said Pamela Donovan, assistant professor of logistics at the University of North Texas.

For example, Austin’s new BA flight will create 1,000 direct and indirect jobs over three years and generate $74 million a year in economic activity, according to a confidential analysis by Campbell-Hill Aviation that the chamber commissioned. Chamber executives declined to elaborate on the data.

International routes help particularly if they connect a city to other business or industrial centers. However, Donovan said routes that target tourist destinations would probably have a smaller impact, because there is little to attract businesses, manufacturing or cargo traffic.

Airport officials would not comment on their plans. But in 2013, the airport created an incentives plan for new international routes – specifying that only London and Tokyo routes would qualify. The plan includes waiving landing fees for two years and providing up to $400,000 in marketing and advertising support over two years, contingent on City Council approval, according to a document on the airport website.

Tokyo is the third-largest airport system in the world, with two international airports, and a gateway to the rest of Asia, where many Austin tech companies have operations or suppliers. The list includes Dell Inc., Freescale Semiconductor and Cirrus Logic. Japanese companies including Tokyo Electron have plants or offices in Austin. South Korea-based Samsung has a $13 billion chip manufacturing complex in Austin.

It took several years to land the British Airways flight, and business leaders know it will be hard to get another international flight.

Austin’s pitch to British Airways included focusing on the city’s standing as a high tech hub, said Maggie Bishop, part of the economic development team at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“We tried to show the connection between Central Texas technology and London technology. There are many companies with big offices here — 3M, Dell, IBM — that they recognize.”

Both Austin and London also have startups with branches in the other city. Austin-based Spredfast has an office in London to serve the European market. British startup Clarify moved its headquarters from the U.K. to Austin last year.

The Austin representatives also promoted the city’s growing status as a cultural hub. The Formula 1 race, South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival are big passenger draws.

“BA opened up during the time of South By, and that was huge,” said Jim Halbrook, a spokesman for the airport. “They have 180 connections worldwide. There were a lot of people flying in from other countries to London and then traveling here for South By. They were pulling in passengers from Germany and more.”

“These events are part of Austin’s appeal. And they are also businesses themselves. They generate revenue for a variety of businesses in Austin and the airport,” he added.

Another factor that made the transatlantic route possible was Boeing’s midsize Dreamliner jet, Halbrook said – easier to fill than the larger jets often used on international routes.

“For a midsized market like Austin, the Dreamliner fit perfectly,” Halbrook said. The BA Dreamliner 787-8 fits 214 passengers, half the capacity of Boeing’s 777 and the Airbus. The 787 also uses 20 percent less fuel than a similar capacity jet.

Austin’s pitch to Asian airlines would be similar to the one it made to BA, including the connections among high-tech hubs.

The airport also wants to sustain its current Aeromar nonstop to Mexico City, “as we would really like to go to South America,” Bishop said. The city also would like to regain an Austin-Toronto nonstop. Air Canada canceled its flight in 2009, after just a year of service. The only other regularly scheduled international flight from Austin is Southwest Airlines to Cancun.

Airlines make their own economic calculations before adding new routes. There is an additional complication in securing an international route, because airlines must negotiate agreements with the respective countries to start service. The negotiations include issues such as which cities will be linked, flight frequency and even fares, Donovan said.

As the city pursues more international flights, all eyes will be on the success of the Austin-London flight, which will affect other carriers’ decisions, Bishop said.

Some Austin passengers are already sold on the new service.

Linda Glass, founder of Glass Talent Strategies, an executive coaching and leadership development consulting firm, flies to London three or four times a year to meet with clients.

Before the BA flight, Glass had to fly to Dallas or New York’s Kennedy Airport before heading to London. That meant another flight, another boarding line plus a layover to get to London, adding several hours to the journey. “When you pack that in to an already nine-hour flight, and you have to be up and running and productive for your clients, it makes a big difference,” Glass said.

The BA flight is less than 10 hours long. Plus there’s another time-saving element: With so few international flights in Austin, the customs lines for returning passengers are shorter.

“You can have some extraordinary lines at immigration in Houston, Dallas or JFK.” she said.

Austin-Bergstrom is expanding is customs area as part of a $62 million terminal expansion and renovation that will include more security check lines.

RACHEL PHUA reports for Reporting Texas, a UT School of Journalism program, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.

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