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File image of United Airlines aircraft. AFP
United Airlines boss tells SUR: 'We don't want the Malaga - New York route just to be a summer love affair'

United Airlines boss tells SUR: 'We don't want the Malaga - New York route just to be a summer love affair'

The first flight on the new direct route will arrive on the Costa del Sol from the Big Apple on 1 June and there will be connections three times a week until 28 September

Pilar Martínez

Malaga

Tuesday, 30 May 2023, 19:31

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The first direct flight on the new route between Malaga Airport and New York will arrive to the Costa del Sol on 1 June. It will operate three times a week during the peak summer season, but there are hopes that the connection will "not just be a summer love affair".

Antonio de Toro, Head of Sales in Spain for United Airlines, told SUR the company intends to consolidate the route and extend it beyond summer. But the carrier will need to wait until at least October to know if the idea will become a reality.

Antonio de Toro, at the offices of United Airlines in Spain.
Antonio de Toro, at the offices of United Airlines in Spain. SUR

I have been told that you have many links with Malaga, so it is easier to sell United Airlines the benefits of this destination?

Well, I do know it well. Just now I was talking to colleagues who are in the United States and who are going to visit for the first time. I always tell them that they are going to love it, that they have to discover it. I tell them what it is, a jewel. And well, everyone is really looking forward to coming, to getting to know Malaga.

Where does this link with Malaga come from?

I've been linked to Malaga since I was a child. I used to spend my summers here and now I have a house in San Pedro de Alcántara so I can get away when I can.

How did you start with United Airlines?

I've been working for United Airlines for 25 years. I joined when it was Continental and I have seen it grow. We have also been through some very tough times, such as 11 September and Covid. We are a team with a lot of desire to work. We have just inaugurated the flight from Barcelona to Chicago. We have added to the New York flight, from Madrid and Barcelona, the Washington flight and we are maintaining the flights to New York from Palma de Mallorca and Tenerife. And on Wednesday 31 May, we are launching the star of the crown, the flight from New York to Malaga.

On the Costa del Sol, the tourism sector is excited about this new flight, the only one connecting Malaga with the United States. How is the airline experiencing this premiere?

United Airlines is seeing tremendous demand for all international travel from the United States. After Covid there has been a tremendous growth in travel in general, and last year was already a good year. All forecasts point to this year being better than 2022, and for us this new flight means more growth, one more point on the map in Spain. In fact, this summer United will be the American company with the most direct connections in this country. I think this is a very important milestone, a clear commitment to the Spanish market. Never before in history has any American airline made such a strong commitment to flying to five Spanish destinations.

How many seats are on offer on the new Malaga-New York route?

For this summer we are going to have a total of 52 return flights and we are going to offer approximately 17,000 seats in both directions.

How are sales going and how are expectations being met?

We are happy with the way sales are going. We see a demand for this flight both in the United States, where the Junta de Andalucía, Turismo Costa del Sol and Turespaña are doing a very important job in promoting the destination, as well as from Malaga. Locally in Spain we are also promoting the flight a lot. There is a lot of enthusiasm on the part of our natural partners, which are the travel agencies, and the general public. Our expectations are being met.

I understand that the inaugural flight is full and the first flight from Malaga is also full. What level of occupancy do you foresee for the season?

The occupancy is quite high and I think that in general we are expecting not only a good occupancy, which I think it will be, but also a good fare. Sometimes filling a plane is quite easy, but filling it with quality fares is more fun. It takes a little bit more effort. I can't give you an occupancy figure right now, but I can say that they are in line with the historical figures of other destinations that have opened in previous years, and with expectations.

How has the preparation been for the inauguration of this flight?

We are two teams that are investing a lot of time, effort and enthusiasm in the successful launch of this flight. There is a team in the United States, which is also working on the first departure from Newark Airport, which will involve, among others, the staff of the Spanish Consulate in New York, where a small ceremony will be held, with a ribbon cutting. Then here in Spain there is a tremendous amount of work with the Junta de Andalucía, with the Costa del Sol, with the city of Malaga, with Turespaña and with airport operator Aena. We have created an impressive teamwork and I think that is the key. They are great travelling companions. We couldn't be more grateful for all the support we are receiving to make the inauguration a success. The flight will arrive at 7.40am on Thursday, 1 June, and there will also be a reception here. Airline executives are coming, with our Vice President of Alliances and Planning, Patrick Quayle. There will be an event at Malaga Airport with the press and then the Junta de Andalucia is organising another one with leading travel agents in the area.

The question on everyone's lips here is whether there is a possibility that the three flights a week will be extended, whether it will continue next summer or all year round?

For this year, no increase in frequencies or operating times is foreseen. This has to do with fleet and crew planning. This does not mean that in the following years we will identify this market and we will see that there really is an opportunity to increase both frequencies and seasonality. I am sure that Patrick Quayle's team will be quite agile when it comes to improving the offer from Malaga to New York, but not this year.

If you are talking about the next few years, is it because there is a chance that this connection will be maintained in the summer of 2024?

Everything will depend on how this year goes, in other words, these are decisions that are taken in October, which is when the operation is evaluated. As I said, it is not only the occupancy factors, which are very good, but also the profitability of the flight. Basically, that is what we are looking for as the ultimate goal, that the flight is profitable. So no one can make any promises. The chances are high, but right now I can't put my hand in the fire. With the last flight, which is on 28 September, we will evaluate the performance of the connection over these four months and then we will decide whether or not it will return, how often, what type of aircraft or for how long. Because it will also depend on the fleet we have available. There are a lot of different factors. We are working to make the flight a reality again. The intention of course is to bring it back, but we have to see how this year goes. As expectations are going well, it can happen.

What are the chances of this becoming a permanent year-round connection?

We are watching demand behaviour very closely, not only within the days we operate in the summer, but also throughout the rest of the year. All of this is looked at very closely. Demand behaviour on both sides of the Atlantic is analysed and all of this is taken into account. Just as Malaga was identified as an opportunity to connect in New York and offer a service from Andalucía, I can assure you that our team is very alert and they are going to be agile in making the positive changes that need to be made.

Andalucía is working to open new routes in the United States, with Chicago and Miami. Is the company considering the possibility of connecting Malaga with other North American destinations?

Our objective right now is to consolidate Malaga, to make it a profitable route, and if we can increase frequencies or seasonality, so be it. Once this is consolidated, then just like in Madrid or Barcelona, and as I said, we are now starting to fly to Chicago from El Prat, everything fits. It will always depend, I repeat, on the fleet, but our fundamental task right now is to consolidate Malaga and make this flight strong so that in the future it can be considered.

When this flight was announced, Seville raised its voice because the connection was established with Malaga Airport. What does an airline like United Airlines require to choose one destination over another?

The first thing is that United Airlines is a totally apolitical airline. Decisions are made based on business criteria. The objective of all of United's more than 80,000 employees is to offer a good service, a good product, where we can satisfy the passenger's demands and create profitability for our shareholders. We are listed on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange, and so all the decisions that are made at the corporate level have a major impact on our stock price and therefore on the value it gives to its shareholders. Of course, we are looking for attractive destinations to connect people, to bring people together, but we have to look for profitability. What Malaga offers is a gateway to Andalucía. And I think that, being totally apolitical, we should work together. I think Seville is a great city and all the provinces will benefit from this flight to Malaga. I would like it to be seen as an opportunity. The distances between them are short. Granada is an hour and a quarter away and that's nothing for an American.

The technological hub that is being created in Malaga, with the arrival of Google as an exponent, must also have an influence?

Yes, all this adds up and we will see over time, I mean once this flight has been consolidated, we will see.

Sustainability is a hot topic when it comes to air travel. What measures is United Airlines working on to reduce its carbon footprint?

By 2027 we will receive about 700 aircraft. It is the largest order ever placed in aviation. At the moment we are getting a new aircraft every three days. Many of them are going to replace the current fleet, others are for the American domestic market, which is very large, but this will also include the purchase of a hundred 787 Dreamliners, which are long-range aircraft. Right now there is a very important change and there is a very strong commitment to change fleets in favour of sustainability. All of our planes from Los Angeles and from San Francisco all fly on recycled fuel and United Airlines' commitment is that by 2050 the entire fleet will be operating on recycled fuel to get to zero emissions. There is also investment in electric and supersonic aircraft.

Will there be a fleet increase if Malaga is chosen to host Expo2027?

Of course. United's idea is that this should not be a summer love affair, but that it should be an operation that is really consolidated and that it should be a flight option for Americans to come to Andalucía and for Andalucians to travel to the United States.

What is the profile of the American traveller who is going to come to the Costa del Sol?

There really is a bit of everything because each seat on our planes is a different product. We are aimed at the high-contribution passenger, who will fly in our Polaris class with 16 seats that make a bed with a total recline of 180 degrees and with an exceptional in-flight service where logically the fare is high. There are passengers who are willing to pay this, and then we have in the tourist class all kinds of travellers, families who come on holiday or people who come for active tourism. There are also those who fly with suitcase-free fares, who come with their backpack. The Solheim Cup or the Year of Picasso are hooks for Americans to come to Malaga to get to know the birthplace of this genius of an artist. This connection is an opportunity for the whole of Andalucía.

What are they looking for in the destination?

Andalucía offers many options for all different types of travellers. I think there will be a mix of passengers looking for the luxury and comfort that the region offers, as well as those who want to get on a bus with their backpack and explore the region at their own pace. These are destinations for Americans to discover. And when they come, my personal opinion is that they will repeat their visit again.

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