In the latest sign of Austin’s growth, the city is getting its first nonstop flight to Europe — a milestone city officials say is a nod to the region’s increasing importance as a tourism and business hub.
British Airways said Tuesday that starting in March, it will fly nonstop between Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and London’s Heathrow airport. The route will be the Austin airport’s first international destination other than Mexico. British Airways said it will fly the 787 Dreamliner on the route. The Dreamliner, with its focus on fuel efficiency, helped make the route possible, officials said.
“Connecting two of the world’s great cities, London and Austin, through this first time, non-stop service between ABIA and Heathrow Airport is sure to take our city to a new level for both business and vacation travelers,” Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said in a written statement.
Visitors from the United Kingdom represent the largest group of European travelers to Austin, city officials said, and Heathrow is also the top trans-Atlantic destination for Austinites.
In 2011, about 25,000 visitors from the United Kingdom visited and spent about $24.3 million in the city, according to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. The next closest country is Germany, with about 12,000 visitors to Austin.
Alan Eley, vice president of operations in North America for British Airways, said the airline recognized “the growing importance of Austin, internationally and globally, as not just a leisure destination but also as a hub for business within North America.”
British Airways does not currently have plans to offer direct flights from Austin to other European cities, Eley said.
Lynne Embleton, British Airways’ director of strategy, said the airline believes the new Austin route “will prove very popular with both business and leisure customers and will be our third route to Texas, after Houston and Dallas.”
“In the pioneering spirit of the Lone Star state, we are flying there in one of the world’s most advanced aircraft, the 787, to encourage more business with the scores of hi-tech businesses based in Austin’s ‘Silicon Hills,’” Embleton said in a written statement.
Lew Little, board chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, said the deal with British Airways will bring $70 million in economic impact during its first year. He said that should grow to $74 million within the first three years.
Little said the business community and cultural opportunities like Formula One racing, which has several teams based in England, are particular draws for international visitors.
A Circuit of the Americas spokeswoman said the United Kingdom was No. 3 in terms of foreign ticket buyers for last year’s Formula One race in Austin, behind Mexico and Canada, though she declined to give specific numbers.
The arrival of Formula One racing, the expansion of the Austin City Limits Music Festival to two weekends and the growth of South by Southwest has the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau expecting an increase in visitors to the city in the future.
The city of Austin did not offer British Airways subsidies to bring the direct flight to its airport, said Jim Halbrook, an airport spokesman. Halbrook said British Airways was granted waivers for landing and facilities fees that are routinely given to new routes offered at the airport, but no additional incentives.
“This is a large investment being made by British Airways in the Central Texas community and it is important for us to make that investment work if we want to hold on to the flight,” Smith said.
Smith said existing plans to add security checkpoints, a larger customs facility and added baggage-handling capacity will help process the additional foreign passengers faster.
The Austin City Council recently agreed to use $62.5 million in revenue bonds for the 55,000-square-foot expansion, which will fill an empty notch in the 14-year-old building just east of the Southwest Airlines ticket counters.
Additionally, Smith said ABIA officials Wednesday will discuss a gate expansion with the city’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee with the hope of staying ahead of the airport’s passenger growth. ABIA saw a record 9.4 million passengers pass through the airport in 2012 and traffic has increased 6 percent so far in 2013, according to airport officials.
Currently, travelers can book the Austin-to-London nonstop four days a week — every day except Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. Flights will be available five days a week beginning the second week of operation. British Airways said it will increase the service to daily in May.
The lowest fare for the round trip is $1,694.18 including taxes and fees, compared with $972 on American Airlines connecting through Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Flights can be booked on ba.com.
On Tuesday morning, the new British Airways flights were not listed as code-share options on the American Airlines booking site, but Eley said code-share booking would be available.
Typically, American Airlines frequent fliers can use their miles to book British Airways flights, but if they choose to do so, they will pay up to $700 more in taxes and fees to use their miles than if they used American flights.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed information about incentives to Jim Smith, executive director of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The information came from Jim Halbrook, a spokesman for the airport. The earlier version also should have said that British Airways was granted waivers for landing and facilities fees that are routinely given to new routes offered at the airport, but no additional incentives
By the numbers
$1,694.18 – listed Austin-to-London direct flight fare Tuesday on British Airways website
$972 – listed fare Tuesday for American Airlines Austin-to-London route, with a connecting flight through Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport
$1,253 — listed fare Tuesday for British Airways’ Dallas-to-London direct flight
$1,125 — listed fare Tuesday for British Airways’ Houston-to-London direct flight
9:25 — projected flight time for British Airways’ Dallas-to-London direct flight
9:35 — projected flight time for British Airways’ Houston-to-London direct flight
10:20 — projected flight time for Austin-to-London direct flight
263,601 – passengers flying annually to and from London via British Airways through Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport
Sources: British Airways, American Airlines, Google Flights, George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Travelmath.com