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Lufthansa: We’re not cutting Charlotte-Munich flight

Executives from Lufthansa are telling Charlotte business and political leaders that the German airline doesn’t plan to cut its daily Charlotte-Munich flight.

To counteract speculation and allay business travelers’ concerns, Lufthansa officials held a series of events Monday and Tuesday to meet with business executives, elected leaders, Charlotte airport officials and the German American Chamber of Commerce. The theme was simple, spokesman Nils Haupt said: “We are committed to stay in Charlotte.”

Airline analysts have said the Lufthansa flight might be on the chopping block after the US Airways-American Airlines merger, which closed in December. US Airways is leaving the Star Alliance – in which Lufthansa is a partner – and joining the American-led Oneworld international alliance as a result.

The loss of US Airways as an alliance partner feeding connecting traffic is likely to make Lufthansa more dependent on getting local travelers to use the airline. US Airways accounts for about 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and having US Airways in the Star Alliance has given Lufthansa access to a ready-made hub in the Southeast.

Being in an alliance together also means the airlines have a code-sharing agreement and travelers can use and accumulate frequent flier miles on each others’ flights.

‘One of our best routes’

Lufthansa CEO Christoph Franz further fueled speculation about Charlotte in November, when he described the city during an interview with USA Today as “a smaller destination ... that is heavily depending on the first-class feeder network from US Airways.”

Juergen Siebenrock, Lufthansa’s vice president of the Americas, told reporters in Charlotte on Tuesday that the Charlotte-Munich flight is one of the airline’s most profitable.

“It’s been one of our best routes overall,” he said. “The interaction between Germany and this market is strong.”

Siebenrock said both a large cluster of German businesses and historical ties help make Charlotte an attractive market.

“The first time I saw ‘Mecklenburg,’ I thought somebody got my stats wrong,” Siebenrock said. “I said, ‘Mecklenburg is part of Germany.’ 

The Charlotte Regional Partnership says almost 200 German firms have operations in and around Charlotte, employing about 50,000 workers. That’s up from 150 German firms in 2004, when Lufthansa started its Charlotte flight, Siebenrock said.

The group includes large companies such as Continental Tire, Daimler Trucks North America and Siemens Energy, as well as dozens of small and midsize companies.

One of Lufthansa’s biggest corporate travel clients is BMW, which has a factory in Spartanburg, S.C., Siebenrock said. German companies tend to be loyal to Lufthansa.

“Lufthansa is a very strong brand in Germany,” said Siebenrock.

About 40 percent of Lufthansa’s travelers on the Charlotte-Munich flight are business fliers, Siebenrock said. That’s similar to the proportion of business travelers on Lufthansa as a whole.

One reason the Lufthansa flight has been profitable: Charlotte’s low-cost airport, Siebenrock said. For airlines, Charlotte Douglas has among the lowest costs per passenger of any major U.S. airport.

Lufthansa serves 17 U.S. cities and three in Canada. The airline’s primary hub is in Frankfurt, and the Munich hub is its second-largest.

Reaching out to economy fliers

To boost the number of travelers flying from Charlotte, Siebenrock said the airline plans to make itself more attractive with new planes and more offerings in the economy cabin. The airline has 300 new aircraft on order to refresh its fleet, and Lufthansa is adding a “premium economy” cabin with more amenities – and a higher price tag.

Lufthansa executives were tight-lipped about the details of the new economy option, which will be unveiled in Berlin in March.

New York-based aviation analyst Bob Mann said Lufthansa will have to rely on its business travel contracts to make a Charlotte flight work without as much feeder traffic from US Airways.

“I don’t think it’s a question of them walking away,” he said. “There’s a lot of contract business they have that they’re likely to retain.”

Mann said Lufthansa might consider downsizing the Charlotte-Munich flight to a smaller aircraft than the Airbus A330 that operates the route. Haupt said there are no plans to switch to a smaller plane.

One thing that could change Lufthansa’s equation, Mann said, is if the new American decides to fly from Charlotte to Munich and directly compete on the route. US Airways, which is keeping its name until the airlines completely merge their operations, currently flies from Charlotte to Frankfurt.

“There’s no reason to believe that American wouldn’t work with Lufthansa, unless they choose to fly it themselves,” said Mann. “If they choose to fly it themselves, those issues might change.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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