DFW Airport emerging as international hub

06/07/2014 9:19 AM

06/07/2014 8:37 PM

On any given day, voices speaking Arabic, Korean, Dutch or Portuguese can be heard throughout Terminal D at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

And on Wednesday, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese will join the conversation as American Airlines launches its first nonstop service to Shanghai and Hong Kong from North Texas.

The flights to China, which will operate daily, connect DFW to one of the most dynamic parts of the world and mark another step in transforming the airport, which opened 40 years ago with the word Regional in its name, into a global hub.

In the last five years, DFW has added almost two dozen international destinations, including Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and Sydney. International airlines such as Qantas, Emirates and Qatar Airways, which will launch flights to Doha in July, have added operations at DFW. And in the fall, the world’s largest passenger jet, the A380, will be used on routes to Australia and the Middle East.

•  Interactive: Charting DFW's global growth

American, which has served Japan, Europe and Latin America for years, has expanded its international reach from DFW. Since 2011, the Fort Worth-based carrier has added flights to Lima, Peru; Bogota, Colombia; Seoul, South Korea; Rio de Janeiro; Roatan, Honduras; and Edmonton, Canada.

While the additional international service is bringing more business travelers and tourists to the Metroplex, more than half of the airport’s passengers, almost 35 million in fiscal 2014, are connecting through DFW to other destinations.

“DFW is a great connection point for international-to-international [destinations], especially from Asia to South America,” airport Chief Executive Sean Donohue said. “American’s got a great South American network. They’re growing their Asian network. There is a tremendous amount of customer flow that goes between both areas of the world.”

Asia to Latin America

DFW is no longer just a pathway for connecting passengers from places like Lubbock to Cleveland. Instead, travelers starting in Seoul can now stop at DFW on their way to Cancun.

Although American continues to dominate flights at DFW, carrying about 85 percent of the traffic, more international carriers view North Texas as a gateway to other parts of the world.

That’s one reason that Emirates, which launched flights to Dubai in 2012, plans to upgrade its aircraft on the route in October to the A380, which can hold an additional 223 seats.

“We saw demand growing,” said Hubert Frach, an Emirates divisional senior vice president. “We had very strong traffic flow from Dallas to Dubai and also beyond to the Indian subcontinent.”

On average, about 60 percent of Emirates passengers are connecting through Dubai to other destinations. The DFW route, Frach said, has strong business travel and leisure demand to cities in India and Pakistan. Emirates is not part of a global alliance like American’s Oneworld group, so Frach said he did not know how many customers coming to DFW continued to other destinations.

The takeoff and landing slots that American received from the Chinese government for its routes to Shanghai and Hong Kong make it easy for the airline to connect passengers to flights south of the border.

“These slots can help the Chinese people connect to South America and Latin America routes very easily,” said Maxine Peng, general manager of American’s China division. “The connection time is great.”

For example, passengers arriving around 4 p.m. on the flight from Hong Kong can make connecting flights to Lima and Bogota within a couple of hours, while those arriving at 6 p.m. from Shanghai can connect to flights to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Mexico City that same day.

“We see a large growth in travel demand to Latin America, which makes DFW a very important connection point,” Peng said. “The middle-class people have more money, and they are willing to go out and see more of the whole world.”

While the added international service is a boon for the airport, Donohue realizes that a strong domestic network is also crucial to the airport’s success. DFW has 56 international destinations but serves 147 domestic markets.

In its next fiscal year, the airport expects to see a slight decline in originating and destination travelers — partly because Wright Amendment restrictions are being eliminated at Love Field — but an increase in connecting passengers as American re-banks its DFW hub in 2015 to make connections more efficient for customers.

“With very few exceptions, Dubai probably being one, to be a global superhub, you have to have both domestic as well as international connectivity,” Donohue said.

Smoother connections

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the government overhauled its customs and border protection process, requiring international visitors to have visas even if they were only connecting through the U.S.

So business travelers from Asia heading to Latin America had to apply for visas even if they were only landing at a U.S. airport and waiting a few hours to make their connecting flights. Lines at the customs hall grew longer, and making a flight with a short layover became difficult.

“Let’s say you’re flying from China to Brazil. It’s not the end of the world to come through DFW and customs and immigration and go right back upstairs and you can check your bag into Brazil. You go through TSA and you’re right there,” Donohue said.

“But we’re looking at, How do we make that as customer-friendly and the experience as seamless as possible even if you have to go through the process?”

Last summer, some passengers had to wait in customs lines in Terminal D for three or four hours as the airport struggled to handle international traffic, which has increased by 39 percent over the past four years.

To alleviate the long waits, the airport asked the government to let it pay up to $3 million in overtime for customs agents to help with staffing this year. It also unveiled an automated passport control system and has 30 kiosks in the customs hall that can be used by U.S. and Canadian citizens to shorten processing.

The system has been so successful that President Barack Obama announced last month that it will be used as a model, with the goal of having the top 15 airports in the U.S. install one like it.

“If folks spend less time at the airport, they’re more likely to plan a return trip,” Obama said during a speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he praised DFW’s automated system. “We want to bring in more visitors faster.”

Decision on Terminal F

DFW’s international facility, Terminal D, will be 10 years old next year. And with most of its gates in use, discussions about building Terminal F have begun.

The airport is already spending $2.8 million to upgrade a gate at Terminal D to accommodate the double-decker A380, which will be used by Qantas on its Sydney flights starting in September and Emirates’ Dubai flights starting in October.

But a new terminal will likely cost hundreds of millions and take years to plan and build.

Donohue said that if the airport decides it needs the additional capacity, a decision on Terminal F will likely be made in 2015 so it can be ready by 2020.

“What I see in 30 years is a terminal that has the flexibility to handle the A380, to handle the 777X, to handle the Dreamliner, to handle the A350, not only from a gate perspective but from a facilitation standpoint, from a customer experience standpoint,” Donohue said. “That would be my vision: the flexibility to handle pretty much anything.”

New aircraft joining carriers’ fleets are more fuel-efficient and make some secondary international markets economically viable for carriers.

Aviation consultant Mike Boyd expects international service to keep rising at DFW, particularly as American adds the Boeing 787 to its fleet and considers adding destinations to its network.

“[DFW] will probably get Chengdu at some point and probably Guangzhou,” Boyd said. “The real growth at DFW is going to be American using it as a connecting point. DFW is at the right spot at the right time.”

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