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IAG to copy Norwegian Airlines and offer long-haul flights from El Prat Airport

The group will operate new low-cost routes to the United States, South America and Asia

"We won’t operate long-haul routes from El Prat since it’s not sustainable for us; for Iberia, the most efficient model is to concentrate all our long-haul flights in our Madrid hub". These were the words of the CEO of the International Airlines Group (IAG), Willie Walsh, two years ago, when asked about the possibility of operating intercontinental flights from Barcelona, following Iberia’s decision to stop operating such routes from El Prat. Nevertheless, three months after Scandinavian carrier Norwegian Airlines announced its intention to operate long-haul routes from Barcelona, IAG’s CEO has reconsidered his answer. Yesterday the group (owner of Vueling, Iberia and British Airways) announced it will start to operate low cost intercontinental flights from the Catalan capital as of June 2017.

With this commitment, the company will directly compete with some of the flights from Barcelona announced by Norwegian Airlines last summer, including direct flights to the West Coast of the United States and the main Latin American capitals. Specifically, IAG is considering opening routes to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the United States, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile in South America, Havana in the Caribbean and Tokyo in Asia. The airline holding company said it wants to make use of Vueling’s network of European connections to supply its routes and that "there is demand" for an operation of this volume. However, it flatly denied that Vueling would be in charge of operating the new routes. Therefore, the Catalan airline will continue to focus on short and medium-haul flights within Europe.

At this stage —having not officially announced its flights— the group is considering two options: creating a new brand that operates as an independent company or utilising the existing resources of IAG companies to begin servicing the routes. In a press release, the company stated that "Barcelona has become a major international hub". Although the announcement has been met with surprise, industry sources see it as a logical step for the group since Norwegian Airline’s initiative threatened Vueling’s dominance in El Prat.

In an interview with Catalan daily La Vanguardia, Walsh revealed that all of IAG’s operations are to be serviced by only two A330 aircraft and will involve directly employing 250 staff. By comparison, Norwegian Airlines will operate its long-haul hub in El Prat with nine planes and a workforce of 755. Until now the IAG group's strategy limited Barcelona to Vueling’s European flights, while concentrating the entirety of its intercontinental routes on Madrid’s Barajas Airport. IAG’s last long-haul flight from Barcelona left El Prat Airport for São Paulo in 2012 (a few months after the demise of Spanair, with whom they competed for the route). The group subsequently cancelled both the weekly flights it operated with Iberia, and the airline ceased its operations from the Catalan capital, with the exception of its Barcelona-Madrid shuttle.

According to Ricard Font, the Catalan government’s Secretary for Infrastructure and Mobility, six months ago IAG approached the Barcelona Air Route Development Committee to communicate its intentions, and the committee has since met with the airline to evaluate its proposal. The Catalan authorities have welcomed the plan with optimism and see it as a confirmation of El Prat’s potential as an international hub. "Airlines value Catalan competitiveness, not only for tourism, but also the drive for exports and business class", Font declared.

Direct flights to Tokyo

Among the destinations promised by IAG, one stands out above the rest. The group is considering flying to Tokyo next summer. A direct flight has so far never existed, though the airport has offered connecting flights to other foreign hubs. In fact, until recently Barajas had not had a direct flight to Tokyo for 18 years.

Last October Iberia announced it would once more fly from Madrid to the Japanese capital after almost two decades without offering the route. Nevertheless, IAG announced that offering the same destinations from both cities is not a problem and insisted that Barcelona would benefit without directly competing with Madrid, where it plans to continue its growth in the South American market.

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