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American Airlines dropping Charlotte-Rio de Janeiro route

American Airlines will drop its nonstop flight from Charlotte to Rio de Janeiro early next year, the company said Monday, its first major service cutback since the carrier merged with US Airways in December.

American will still fly nonstop from Charlotte to Sao Paulo, Brazil. But customers will have to connect through Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami or New York’s Kennedy airport to reach Rio, the popular vacation destination for its enormous Christ the Redeemer statue, Copacabana beach and Carnival.

Michelle Mohr, spokeswoman for American, said the decision to discontinue the Charlotte-Rio flight was made as part of the “constant evaluation” of routes that the airline is undertaking as it combines the American and US Airways networks. The flight will end in early 2015, but an exact date hasn’t been set.

US Airways started its Charlotte-Rio flight in 2009 and alternates between a Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 jet, depending on seasonal demand.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport has seen international service grow steadily in the past several years. US Airways, which combined with American accounts for more than 90 percent of Charlotte’s daily flights, added flights to Rio, Sao Paulo, and trans-Atlantic destinations including Lisbon, Madrid, Rome and London-Heathrow.

Executives said they expected the growth to continue after the merger, with American growing from its current 650 to more than 700 daily flights at Charlotte. Mohr said there are “no other changes” for Charlotte Douglas at this time.

But travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Hudson Crossing said the dropping of the Charlotte-Rio flight points to the fact that in a combined route network, some flights will be more profitable to operate from American hubs than former US Airways hubs.

“As American did its route analysis, I’m sure that Charlotte to Rio surely was not performing at the level that would justify keeping the plane on the route,” Harteveldt said. “These are expensive airplanes, and they have to be paid for.”

Charlotte Douglas has nonstop service to 36 international destinations. Of those, 26 are flights to Caribbean, Latin American or South American destinations – many of which are also served from Miami, a legacy American hub, viewed by some analysts as a competitor with Charlotte for those flights.

“American has such a strong operation in Miami,” Harteveldt said. American has almost 300 daily flights from Miami, where it accounts for about 70 percent of all traffic. “Miami is really a focal point for most people originating from the U.S. for Latin America.”

A comparison of the number of passengers flying from Charlotte to Rio and Miami to Rio in June shows the larger size of Miami’s Brazilian travel market. Including connecting passengers, Department of Transportation statistics show 3,305 people flew from Charlotte to Rio on US Airways, while 8,884 flew from Miami to Rio on American.

Charlotte Douglas is especially reliant on connecting passengers to support many of its flights. More than three-quarters of Charlotte Douglas’ travelers are connecting to other flights at the airport, rather than starting or stopping their trips at Charlotte.

In 2010, US Airways dropped its direct Charlotte-to-Honolulu flight less than a year after starting service. The airline said the route wasn’t profitable.

To be sure, Charlotte doesn’t appear to be in any serious danger of losing its hub status, a cut that has hurt other midsize cities after airline mergers.

Pittsburgh lost hundreds of daily flights and closed much of its terminal space after US Airways cut the city as a hub 10 years ago, while Memphis lost hub status and Cincinnati has lost hundreds of flights after Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines merged in 2008. This past weekend, United Airlines announced it would cut its Cleveland hub and about 60 percent of daily flights there.

“No, absolutely not,” Harteveldt said when asked whether Charlotteans should be worried about the city’s airline hub.

Mohr pointed out that American is starting a major expansion to its seasonal trans-Atlantic service this summer when it debuts four new flights to Lisbon, Portugal; Madrid; Brussels; and Manchester, England. During a conference call with analysts last month, American executives said they plan to add “new dots on the map” from Charlotte, focused on small cities in the Midwest.

Harteveldt said Charlotte travelers should appreciate that the flight to the business center of Sao Paulo, which started in June, is not being cut.

“Rio, although it has a wonderful reputation, is really more of a leisure destination,” he said.

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