Delta, Air France pact to give fliers new Europe options

— -- Delta Air Lines and Air France today announced a far-reaching cooperative agreement that will give U.S. passengers new flight choices to Europe.

The arrangement, announced in Paris, represents the most significant move to date by a U.S. carrier to exploit the Open Skies agreement signed earlier this year. Starting in March, Open Skies allows airlines from the USA and the European Union to fly from anywhere to anywhere across the Atlantic.

Under the airlines' deal, Atlanta-based Delta DAL will use some of Air France's takeoff and landing slots to gain immediate access to London Heathrow. The airport is a favorite among high-paying U.S. business travelers and is the busiest European gateway to the rest of the continent, the Middle East and Asia. Delta will become the first new U.S. entrant at Heathrow since United and American bought rights to fly there in the 1990s.

Air France and Delta will jointly market and sell flights, and split the revenue. The airlines have modeled the venture on a similar arrangement created more than a decade ago by Northwest Airlines and KLM, a Dutch carrier that is now a unit of Air France, says Glen Hauenstein, a Delta executive.

But Hauenstein expects the Delta-Air France alliance to be more successful by offering fliers a huge number of flights using Atlanta, New York John F. Kennedy and Paris as worldwide hubs. Delta also expects to benefit from Air France's position as the European carrier with the most passengers and the most frequent-flier members, Hauenstein says.

"Making global travel easier for our customers, whether they live in Salt Lake City or Baton Rouge — that's what this is all about," he says.

Craig Jenks, an aviation consultant in New York, says U.S. business travelers to Heathrow may see "marginally lower fares" as Delta tries to tempt fliers away from rivals. But the bigger benefit for travelers may be greater choice once the flights launch on March 30.

Delta plans twice-daily flights to Heathrow from JFK and a daily Atlanta-Heathrow flight. Delta now serves London by flying to Gatwick airport from JFK, Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Air France plans new daily service between Los Angeles and Heathrow. That service, allowable only because of the Open Skies agreement, will be the first time a foreign carrier serves the USA from a country other than its home, says Mark Gerchick, an aviation consultant.

Travelers will also see new daily, non-stop service to French airports not now served by U.S. carriers. Delta, for instance, will fly daily from JFK to Paris Orly, and from JFK to Lyon, a popular food and wine region.

On Tuesday, Delta reported strong earnings for the July-September quarter, attributing results to successful international expansion. Its third-quarter pretax income of $363 million on revenue of $5.2 billion, the highest quarterly revenue in company history.