For the first time in more than three decades, Louis Armstrong International Airport on Monday began regular transatlantic service to London, a move that local officials and business leaders have predicted will draw more international travelers to New Orleans.
Not long after the inaugural flight landed Monday evening, British Airways announced plans to increase the frequency of the service to London's Heathrow Airport from the initial four times per week to five, starting this fall.
“We are honored to be able to connect New Orleans with London Heathrow and the 130-plus destinations that British Airways flies to across Europe and beyond," said Nicolas Krohne, the airline's vice president of sales. "With a favorable exchange rate and special fares available, Britain has never been more affordable."
British Airways will offer promotional fares starting at $899 round-trip in economy class, including taxes, fees and charges, for travel booked by April 16 and scheduled for select dates from June 7 to Sept. 18 and from Oct. 2 to Dec. 13.
Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic development group that helped lure the flight, said British Airways' decision to increase capacity "before the first plane has even taken off is a great validation for the early demand from this market, as well as the UK."
He said, "The level of excitement that we are hearing from corporate executives to tourists to friends and family exceeds even our high expectations for the enthusiasm that this flight would generate."
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George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a travel blog, said Monday that the introductory fares were "pretty reasonable" for nonstop service during a peak travel period. Passengers would save only a couple of hundred dollars by choosing nondirect alternatives, he said.
"You're flying nonstop and you're flying on British Airways, so you don't have to pay for carry-on bags, you get a meal and all that stuff," Hobica said. "It's a quality experience."
For now, flights are scheduled to leave London at 3:10 p.m. and arrive in New Orleans at 7:10 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Departing flights will leave New Orleans at 9:15 p.m. on the same days and arrive in London at 11:55 a.m. the next day.
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The flight to London is scheduled to take eight hours and 40 minutes. The return flight, which must contend with the jet stream, clocks in at 10 hours.
Starting Oct. 30, the service will begin operating on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
The aircraft being used for the service is among the newest in British Airways’ fleet: the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which accommodates 214 passengers in three cabins, including 154 seats in economy class, 25 in premium economy and 35 in business. Flights include free meals, beverages, on-demand entertainment and a checked bag.
Monday's inaugural flight marked the culmination of a four-year effort to persuade a large international carrier to offer nonstop service between New Orleans and a premier European destination — with London being local officials' top choice.
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In announcing the new service in October, those officials pointed to it as a draw for more international travelers to head to New Orleans from a world business capital like London, forecasting that it would generate roughly $41 million in annual tourism spending for the metro area.
"A flight linking London to New Orleans will allow even more international visitors to experience our vibrant neighborhoods, evolving food and art scene, admired traditions and so much more," said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.
New Orleans hasn't had a nonstop flight to Europe since 1982. In addition to British Airways' new route, the German airline Condor is slated to begin nonstop service to Frankfurt in May.
More than 430 passengers a day travel from New Orleans to Western Europe by way of regional hubs like Atlanta, tourism officials say.
New Orleans’ airport already offers nonstop service to a handful of foreign cities, including several Caribbean locations and Toronto.
Miami-based National Airlines operated the first nonstop flight from New Orleans to Europe in the late 1970s. National was acquired by Pan Am in 1980, and the service ended not long afterward. Consumer demand fell after the oil bust of the mid-'80s and in subsequent years wasn’t great enough to entice another airline to fill the void.
Meanwhile, the number of international tourists traveling to the Crescent City grew by more than one-third in 2015, federal statistics show — the biggest one-year jump of any major U.S. city. That was welcome news for the city's tourism industry because international travelers tend to stay longer and spend more money during their visit than U.S. tourists.
All told, visitors to New Orleans spent $7.4 billion in 2016, a record amount that was up almost 5 percent from 2015, according to a recent University of New Orleans study.
The city hosted a record 10.5 million visitors in 2016, its highest number since 2004 and nearly 7 percent more than in 2015.
All told, more than 11.1 million passengers — counting both those who landed and those who departed — went through the New Orleans airport last year, the highest tally in its seven-decade history.