By Carole Shifrin
Washington, D.C. ― While airlines generally are cutting back sharply on international services, United Airlines’ new nonstop flights between Washington and Geneva, Switzerland are proving a resounding success.
United began five-times-weekly service on the route in late April and increased to daily service on June 1. Ever since the airline began the service, the flights have been operating almost full every day ― including the premium seats that are begging for customers elsewhere ― and United sees the route as profitable, even in these difficult economic times.
The reasons: the distinctive and similar characteristics of the Washington and Geneva markets ― with many government and non-governmental organizations, international agencies and corporate entities on both sides of the Atlantic and the high-end travel they generate ― and the unusually strong support the route is getting from the Geneva business community.
Michael Whitaker, until recently senior vice president – alliances, international and regulatory affairs for United Airlines, concedes that common wisdom would have airlines “start international air service in boom times and pull back in bad times.” It’s what most airlines are doing.
“That’s not the situation here,” he says. “This area supports strong international service.” Whitaker notes that United added Dubai and Moscow to its list of international destinations from Washington Dulles International Airport over the past nine months and to Beijing, Kuwait, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Tokyo over the past two years. “These flights perform relatively well,” he adds. (Whitaker has just left United to become group chief executive officer, travel, technology & general aviation services for InterGlobe Enterprises in New Delhi.)
Because of the special nature of Washington and Geneva, United expected strong business and government travel on the Geneva route, not previously served by nonstop flights, Whitaker says.
To that end, it is using a Boeing 767-300ER that is equipped with its newly upgraded business class with lie-flat bed-seats and 15-inch television screens for on-demand movies. The aircraft has six first-class seats, 26 of the new business class ‘seats’ and 151 economy seats, including 71 “Economy Plus” seats with extra legroom. The flights have been operating daily since June 1.
Corporate travel is an essential element of the route’s success. Besides being the world’s banking hub and headquarters of numerous international agencies, Geneva also is the European headquarters for 250 international companies, 60 per cent of them American, according to Michel Hirsig, deputy manager of the Economic Development Office of the Republic and State of Geneva. About 32 new companies invest in Geneva every year, he adds, but the Swiss jurisdiction expects 40-45 companies to locate there in 2009. “I can say that having direct flights between Washington and Geneva will be a great help.”
A key source of support for the new flights is a one-year “sponsorship” by Geneva’s Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services, according to Philippe Meyer, director of the Chamber’s International Affairs Department.
“We have very good European connections at Geneva, and the business community travels a lot. But they complain that there are not enough long-haul flights from Geneva,” he says. “So we provide any airline (coming in) a free one-year sponsorship from the Chamber. It is worth about $30,000; the airline gets visibility and access to our network of 2,000 companies, which represent 75 per cent of the employers in Geneva.” Altogether, he adds, there are about 3,000 companies based there.
While United is well-known in Washington, it is not so well known in the local business community in Geneva, Meyer says. The sponsorship is a great opportunity for United, “because the business community is doing very well in our area.”