How American Airlines' Path to Africa Landed in a Gin Joint in Casablanca
Casablanca has long been a gateway to somewhere. Most memorably as one of the final stops on the “tortuous, roundabout refugee trail” to the Americas that brought Rick and Ilsa together in the iconic wartime hit "Casablanca".
American Airlines is following a similar tortuous path to Africa — though hopefully one that will not have them wait, and wait, and wait at a gin joint in Casablanca.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier will land in Casablanca (CMN), the main hub of pending Oneworld member Royal Air Maroc, from Philadelphia (PHL) next June. American will offer three-weekly flights with a Boeing 757-200, seasonally from June 4 to Sept. 8.
“This is the first step to us really developing an Africa network,” said Vasu Raja, vice-president of network and schedule planning at American, citing the Royal Air Maroc connection on the carrier’s Tell Me Why podcast on Thursday.
American hopes to repeat in Africa what it did with Central and Eastern Europe. The airline launched service to Budapest (BUD) and Prague (PRG), its first destinations outside of Western Europe, from Philadelphia in 2018. At the time, executives cited strong connecting flows over its partner British Airways’ hub at London Heathrow (LHR) and Iberia in Madrid (MAD) among reasons to test the new markets.
The experiment worked. Budapest and Prague returned – and Budapest will gain a new nonstop to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) in 2020 – and American launched new seasonal service to Berlin (TXL), Bologna (BLQ) in Italy, Dubrovnik (DBV) in Croatia this summer.
American hopes Casablanca will create similar new flows in Africa. Royal Air Maroc will add roughly 34 new destinations in Africa to the Oneworld network when it joins the alliance next year. New connections for American include cities ranging from Abidjan (ABJ) in Ivory Coast, Bamako (BKO) in Mali, and Cotonou (COO) in Benin over Casablanca.
Oneworld spokeswoman Ghim-Lay Yeo confirms that Royal Air Maroc is on schedule to become a full alliance member in 2020. Its membership was announced in December 2018.
“There’s a real value to us to have a partners hub to serve and develop markets,” Raja told TPG in an interview Thursday. He was mum on potential future nonstop routes for American in Africa, reiterating that the new Casablanca route will allow the airline to test the market and see where demand is.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group, calls American's foray into Africa a "very pragmatic" approach to entering the market.
"This is the crawl, walk, run strategy," he said with the airline at the crawl stage with its Casablanca plans.
United is also looking to Africa for growth. The Star Alliance carrier will return to the continent with seasonal service to Cape Town (CPT) in South Africa from Newark Liberty (EWR) in December. The airline previously served Accra (ACC) in Ghana, and Lagos (LOS) in Nigeria.
Live fast, or die
“Our strategy is to fail fast, try new things and invest in what works,” said Raja in the interview. Europe is an example of this where American is treating international markets more like domestic ones by going in with several weekly flights on a seasonal basis where it sees potential, then ramping up what works while dropping what does not.
Berlin and Dubrovnik are two markets that have worked. The carrier will return to both on a daily basis from Philadelphia in 2020, expanding service from just several weekly flights, he said.
On the flip side, Bologna has not worked. Raja said the route, which American is serving four times with a Boeing 767-300ER through Sept., has “struggled” and will not return in 2020. The airline’s customers can continue to reach that region of Italy via its partnership with Iberia, he added.
American will test three more new routes to Europe next year. It will offer new seasonal flights to Budapest, Krakow (KRK) in Poland, and Prague with Boeing 787-8 aircraft from Chicago beginning in May.
- ORD – Budapest: four-times weekly from May 7 to Oct. 24
- ORD – Krakow: five-times weekly May 7 to Oct. 23
- ORD – Prague: five-times weekly May 8 to Oct. 24
Raja, speaking on the podcast, cites strong demand between Chicago and Eastern Europe for the flights. The Illinois city is home to the one of the largest Polish-American communities in the country, according to US Census data.
American will compete with Star Alliance member LOT Polish Airlines on both the Budapest and Krakow routes from Chicago, according to Diio by Cirium schedule data.
Rounding out American’s transatlantic network additions next year is its return to Tel Aviv (TLV). The carrier will launch year-round daily service to the Israeli city from its Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) base on Sept. 9, 2020. It will operate a 787-9 on the route.
“Tel Aviv has been the largest unserved city in the American Airlines’ network until now,” said Raja on the podcast.
Since American exited Tel Aviv, US competitors Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have ramped up service. Capacity on Delta will be up 14% and on United 68%, including new service from Washington Dulles (IAD), this year compared to 2016, Diio data shows.
Raja cited growing economic connections between North Texas and Tel Aviv, as well as connection opportunities between Israel and the Central US for the new route. American has grown its Dallas/Fort Worth hub to more than 900 daily flights this year, as part of an effort to focus growth in its most profitable hubs.
Depending on how the new DFW-Tel Aviv route performs, American could connect the city to its Miami (MIA), New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Philadelphia hubs in the future, added Raja.
“We don’t have huge coastal hubs, but we have the best domestic network,” Raja told TPG on the 2020 route additions. “Our pathway to developing international is different [from Delta and United] – we need to leverage that domestic network.”
More is coming, he added, saying American is not ready to announce 2020 plans for either Latin America or the Pacific. These plans are likely to include two new flights to Tokyo Haneda tentatively awarded by US authorities.