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Antonio de Toro, with United Airlines planes in the background. SUR
United Airlines: 'The daily non-stop flight route between Malaga and New York is off the scale in terms of occupancy'
Interview

United Airlines: 'The daily non-stop flight route between Malaga and New York is off the scale in terms of occupancy'

The American airline company's head of sales in Spain, Antonio de Toro, said ticket sales have exceeded expectations after increasing flight capacity by 280% and turning this Costa del Sol connection into a daily service for the 2024 season

Pilar Martínez

Malaga

Friday, 3 May 2024, 13:31

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As United Airlines resumes direct flights between Malaga and New York for summer 2024, the head of sales for the US company in Spain, Antonio de Toro, has spoken to SUR of his high expectations for the airline's second time of stepping onto Costa del Sol soil having now added more to its capacity than for any other Spanish destination.

To be precise, from today (Friday 3 May) until 24 September the company will offer 280% more seats than it did for its Malaga debut last summer, with a daily flight between the Costa del Sol and Newark airport in New York as the big selling point. "The first flight will arrive with an occupancy rate of over 90%. In business class (Polaris) it is at 95%. A high occupancy rate is expected for the remainder of this season's flights," he said, unable to conceal his satisfaction.

-How are sales of the direct flight from Malaga to New York going?

-We are very pleased with how the flight route is going. Sales are coming along very well. The flight from Malaga to New York has been off the scale in terms of occupancy, average fare and a number of other factors that we measure, going beyond our best forecasts, just imagine. Sales are up on last year. The offer we have made this year is bigger and people are keen to fly, both people from here to the USA and vice versa. We are gambling on much more, we will have a daily flight and we have brought forward the start of flight operations by one month. We have increased the capacity of this route by 280%. Look at what we want for Malaga, we want 280% more, offering more than 51,000 seats between New York and Malaga throughout the season. We are going to offer more capacity between the two markets than any other airline has done in the past. It should be remembered that our courtship with Malaga began last summer in June, with three flights a week and more than 18,300 seats, that's 9,150 seats in each direction. The increase this year is going to be a beast.

- When does the first flight from New York arrive this season and when does the first flight from Malaga leave?

-We will operate this route from Malaga from 4th May to 24th September. The first flight arrives from New York on the 3rd at half past seven in the morning and this year's inaugural flight from the Costa del Sol airport to Newark airport will be on the 4th May at half past nine in the morning. The first flight comes with an occupancy rate of over 90%. In business class, Polaris is at 95%. High occupancy is expected for this season's flights. No special events are planned this time. We operate with a 757-200 aircraft with a total of 176 seats, of which 16 are United Polaris Business Class beds; 160 are Economy Class, including 42 Economy Plus seats where the traveller has more space. On this first flight, 64% of passengers stay in New York and the rest have onward connections.

"The first flight, which arrives this Friday in Malaga, comes with an occupancy rate of over 90% and 95% in business class"

-Are you noticing an increase in demand from Americans who want to travel to the Costa del and what do you think brought about this increase?

-We continue to see strong and growing demand for our services. We expect to grow the market further this summer. There is increased demand in the United States for Malaga, up 31% year-on-year. The profile is very varied. There is a bit of everything in the American traveller. There are those who come and stay in Malaga city. There are many others investing in a second home on the Costa del Sol, and others who fly to tour round Andalucía, from where they might even travel to Madrid and on to Lisbon. In terms of passenger type we have the tourists who come to visit the wonders of Andalucía, but there is also a significant increase in business passengers. All the work being done by Malaga city council to attract the tech giants is having a positive result. It is generating a very interesting mix of passengers.

-Is this growth of business travellers from the USA to Malaga already noticeable and how can it influence putting this flight onto a permanent basis?

-This mix of travellers is key. We are already seeing an increase in the number of business passengers. We are always very aware of all the new opportunities that can be generated to firm up this route. For us, our Polaris business class is very important. Having a good occupancy rate in this class is fundamental to the company.

-And that business element is showing now?

-Yes, it is. Proof of that is that we have increased demand for Polaris. We always work on the basis of past trading, and seeing how well it worked out last year, we have increased it to get good results.

- From what you say, expectations are being met...

-Yes, totally, even surpassing them. I never thought we were going to increase capacity by 280% for the second year of operations in Malaga. No other destination in Spain has performed like this. We already have established operations in Madrid and Barcelona, but not in the new-to-us locations such as Tenerife and Palma de Mallorca.

-Are you confident that these good results will allow you to move from the scenario of a seasonal flight schedule to a permanent, year-round one?

-We are always looking for opportunities. We will be agile and strategic in developing our network to meet the travel needs of our customers. Our services provide a vital gateway between the USA and Malaga, which benefits all of Andalucía. Let's see how this summer goes and how we end up on flight figures from an occupancy and average fare point of view. We are always open to looking at new opportunities. This year is proof of that, so who is to say that this could not be increased. When you love what you do... (laughs).

"The challenge is to consolidate this route. I'm not ruling out that in the future we won't be able to fly to other destinations"

-When would the decision be taken to convert this route from seasonal to year-round operation? 

-Normally we announce our schedules for the following year around October or November. Then we will know more precisely how we are going to operate next year. The first objective is to consolidate this summer. In fact all the data looks good and things are going at a good pace. Everything will also depend on the availability of aircraft. We are in a very important fleet renewal plan and that will set the pace of growth. The renewal plan is called United Next and we expect to take delivery of 800 aircraft over the next few years. It is the largest order ever for an American company. The growth is there. Many of these aircraft will be replacing older aircraft, but the rest (300 planned) are for net growth.

-So if sales are going well, American demand is going up and they are going to have more aircraft, then it's almost a no-brainer to extend the flight....

-I hope so, but there are people who are better equipped than me and who are in charge of making those decisions, the proof being that they have not made any mistakes to date. There are also other possibilities for growth, such as putting in a larger aircraft or extending the season some more.

-Are you considering linking other North American destinations from Malaga or extending operations to other Andalusian airports?

-The idea is to consolidate the New York route. We are open to studying new opportunities. Proof of this is Barcelona and Madrid, where we have expanded our destinations. From the Spanish capital we connect with New York or Washington and from Catalonia we have added Chicago and now San Francisco, so four of our seven hubs. We are always monitoring the market and we make decisions based on that. I'm not saying that in the future we could fly to other destinations in the USA from Malaga, I'm not saying no. It would always be to one of our hubs. The important thing is to consolidate the route from Malaga to New York. Who knows about the future? At the moment there are no plans to fly from any other airport in Andalucía other than Malaga.

-What does Malaga mean for United Airlines in Spain?

-It represents a very important part of our offer within the Spanish market. It is a very attractive destination, offering endless possibilities for the traveller and a perfect complement to the rest of our routes in Spain and Portugal. It is a very important location within our portfolio. We are the American airline that offers the most direct, nonstop flights to and from this country. In addition, the growth in the number of seats from Malaga to New York is the largest for the network in the Spanish market. It is important to know that we are going to increase capacity between the United States and Spain by 30%.

- Last year, before the launch of the flight, you were already feeling that the route would go beyond the summer. How do you feel a year later on the eve of re-commencing operations here?

-The feelings are very positive and I am very excited. To see a flight that you launched one year ago and then come back stronger still is a source of pride, to which is added the illusion of seeing that this growth is not temporary and that a real connection between Malaga and the United States is beginning to take shape. The feeling is that we are very happy with the great reception it has received and proud that Americans are discovering the wonders of the Costa del Sol and Andalucía. If next year it goes the way it is going, we are going to investigate new possibilities for growth. Not only could it be a permanent route, we can go further with a plane with more capacity or extending the season.

- What's new for United Airlines in Spain in general this summer?

-We have announced a new, daily, nonstop, seasonal service between Barcelona and our San Francisco hub, beginning May 24, 2024. United will be the only US airline to directly connect the Catalan capital with the western coast of the USA, providing a gateway to Mexico, Hawaii and Asia Pacific.

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