Airlines Are Fighting for the 1% at LAX

Airlines Fight to Woo LAX's Wealthy Passengers

U.S. airlines would love to get their hands on passengers like Danielle Claman Gelber.

The television producer flies an average of about once a month from Los Angeles to New York and other points East and for now is loyal to one carrier: American Airlines. She gushes about the amenities and the service in American’s unique first-class cabin. But every time she checks her bags at LAX, American’s rivals get a chance to woo her away.

Airlines are fighting for business at Los Angeles International, the largest destination airport in the U.S., renowned for wealthy, celebrity passengers paying full fare and the highly lucrative New York-to-L.A. route. LAX is one of a handful of major U.S. airports where no one carrier dominates -- each of the four biggest airlines now holds market share between 14 percent and 18 percent. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, by contrast, Delta Air Lines Inc. claims 74 percent of passengers.

To court the most desirable passengers, the airlines have been rolling out amenity-laden cross-country flights, lie-flat business-class seats, vented compartments that can house a pet and a slew of more flights. Delta runs special flights to woo the Hollywood crowd. Up next are fancy new terminals: Delta, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines Co. are spending more than $1.3 billion renovating facilities there.

“L.A. is very attractive real estate,” said Stephen Van Beek, vice president of aviation consultant ICF International. “It’s the latest competitive battle on the West Coast and we’re still figuring out who the winners and losers are going to be and how they try to carve up those markets.”

Corporate Traffic

The stakes shouldn’t be underestimated. Flights between L.A. and New York’s Kennedy will produce almost $1 billion in revenue this year, more than any single route in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

LAX is the second-largest U.S. airport in terms of passengers, behind only Atlanta, according to Airports Council International. It’s the largest in terms of people who start or end their trip there, as opposed to connecting to another flight.

Nearly 70.7 million travelers moved through LAX last year, a 6 percent increase from 2013 and a record. More than 19 million were on international flights, also a record. And good news for the airlines: Despite the stepped-up competition, ticket prices are generally holding steady or even rising, according to data from OAG, an aviation research company.

“It’s important because it’s one of the largest generators of corporate traffic,” Andrew Nocella, American’s chief marketing officer, said of LAX. “It pulls more than its weight in terms of the quality of revenue it contributes to the system.”

Pet Space

The flight that Gelber, an executive vice president for Wolf Films, took is part of American’s exercise in pampering customers on the L.A. to New York route.

“It’s beautiful; it’s exquisite; it’s incredible,” Gelber said of American Airlines’ first-class cabins.

Last year the carrier gambled on adding a first-class cabin on 17 planes flown on two transcontinental routes including L.A. to New York. The aircraft are the only ones for U.S. flights with three cabins, for first, business and coach.

Delta runs invitation-only flights to special events, such as the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

“It is a critical market for Delta to be in, and for us to earn customer preference in,” said Ranjan Goswami, Delta’s vice president for sales on the West Coast.

Pampered Celebrities

Along with posh services like private check-in, airlines are also adding new destinations from LAX or increasing the frequencies of existing routes. Delta departures are up 17 percent from a year earlier, while American’s have risen 7.6 percent and Southwest’s, 2.5 percent. United’s departures have slipped 20 percent as it replaced some smaller planes with fewer, larger ones.

United, a unit of United Continental Holdings Inc., in October will shift the New York end of its transcontinental flights to its hub at Newark’s Liberty airport from Kennedy. The move will let it increase daily LAX-Newark flights to as many as 15 a day from six now, said Brian Znotins, United’s vice president for network.

No-Frills Southwest

“With all of those high-yield business passengers, we want to have a good, competitive product from start to finish,” Znotins said.

Southwest, which doesn’t offer a premium product, pooh-poohs the frills competitors offer to first-and-business class customers.

“Most people fly behind the curtain and don’t want a lie-flat bed and a box of potpourri,” said Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s vice president for network planning and performance. Southwest has the fewest daily LAX departures of the big four.

While sprucing up their onboard products, the carriers are also spending on badly needed terminal upgrades.

Baggage Facilities

For passengers who aren’t paying for the premium services, “the airlines recognize they can make their airport terminal experience better and maybe the travelers will say, ‘This airline is easier for me to use at LAX,’” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group.

In June, Delta debuted its $229 million refurbishment of LAX’s Terminal 5. United has a $573 million renovation underway at LAX that’s expected to be completed in 2017, and Southwest is spending $509 million to redo terminal 1.

American, which renovated parts of its check-in facilities at LAX several years ago, is working on a “significant” investment to upgrade some areas, Nocella said.

Some of the airlines are offering special terminal entrances with private check-in, and lounges with concierge services for their elite status fliers.

For Gelber, 56, executive producer of the Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. television series, the terminal upgrades can’t come too soon.

“There’s nothing special-feeling about it,” the American AAdvantage Gold member said of LAX. “You don’t feel like you’ve landed in Los Angeles, the city of angels, the locus of Hollywood. I really think there should be.”

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