JetBlue and the global battle for air supremacy

Big changes are underway in the European skies, and now that Lufthansa has acquired a 19% stake in JetBlue, the U.S.-based discount airline may help shape the outcome of a struggle for air supremacy half a world away.

Once a region comprised of 20+ state-supported or subsidized flag carriers, the liberalization of commercial aviation in the European Union (E.U.) is changing the airline landscape in swift and dramatic fashion. One by one, national flag carriers are vanishing, their routes subsumed by one of three emergent mega-carriers and a multitude of low-cost, regional discount airlines like easyJet, Flybe, and Ryanair are now flooding the continent.

Gone from the skies are Belgian flag carrier Sabena and Swissair, and it is probable that Alitalia, Iberia, Olympic Airlines, and others will disappear in the coming year. Meanwhile, Air France/KLM, British Airways, and Lufthansa are transforming themselves from national airlines to global players that will dominate air traffic in Europe much the same way the big six network airlines dominate U.S. skies.

Once constricted to hub operations based solely within their home country, the three burgeoning mega-carriers are now free to operate hubs based in any E.U. city and may fly from any E.U. airport to any U.S. airport under the open skies treaty beginning early in 2008. As weaker flag carriers disappear, the big three will most likely expand operations into other E.U. countries and operate multiple hubs throughout Europe much the same way the big six network airlines in the U.S. operate multiple hubs in different states across the U.S.

It is no coincidence that the three E.U.-based mega-carriers are members of different global airline alliances (British Airways with oneworld, Air France/KLM with SkyTeam, and Lufthansa with the Star Alliance). Alliances have strengthened these airlines globally and these same alliances are driving the Lufthansa-JetBlue investment.

When E.U./U.S. open skies takes effect, the battle for European air supremacy will expand to the heavily congested skies and airports of New York. Two U.S. airlines from the same alliance dominate international departures in New York today. SkyTeam members Delta Airlines at JFK and Continental Airlines across the river at Newark Airport each fly to more than 20 European destinations from their respective hubs. JFK is also the No. 2 long-haul international gateway for oneworld founder American Airlines, and their alliance partner, British Airways, is the fourth largest long-haul international operator in New York.

Lufthansa's two U.S.-based Star Alliance partners, United and US Airways, don't have a substantial intercontinental presence at either JFK or Newark, the New York airports that serve European flights. United retreated from JFK a decade ago after failing to turn a profit with defunct Pan American's international routes and the carrier relocated much of that service to its Washington Dulles hub. And US Airways' international hub is based in Philadelphia.

With neither Star Alliance partner able to feed or accept traffic in New York, Lufthansa wisely turned to JetBlue, which operates a sizable domestic hub at JFK serving more than 50 cities and is not affiliated with an airline alliance. Although the announced terms of the relationship were purely financial, it doesn't take much of a leap to conclude that Lufthansa would not invest in JetBlue if feeder traffic was not its main objective down the road.

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