Back in 2007 Delta made a bold decision to expand its international flying signficantly from both Atlanta and JFK. The theory was that the domestic market was oversaturated, and that there was plenty of opportunity to grow to second (and third-) tier cities and stay out of the way of competition. 757s made it cost effective to fly longer thinner routes and, the idea went, if one city didn’t work, just shut it down and try a different 2nd tier city. Over time new flights were introduced to Prague, Bucharest, Kiev, Dubai, Kuwait City, Pisa, Valencia, Fortaleza, Recife and more. Plus, Delta launched extensive new services to Central America and the Caribbean, giving American a bit of competition for customers traveling from the Southeast to these sun destinations.
An even more ambitious plan was rolled out to connect little known destinations in Africa (Luanda, Malabo, Monrovia) by building a mini transit hub in Cape Verde. If it worked, it would have served as a base to build out once- or twice-weekly flights from Cape Verde to many capitals across Africa.
But that may have been the tipping point. Delta had been quietly pulling back some of these routes already. They dropped Kuwait City about a year after launch. Mumbai service is reduced. Capetown is reduced, then eliminated. Cape Verde is dropped, then all of the cities it would have connected. JFK to Bogota is suspended in the fall. Kenya is out. Seoul, Shanghai, Bucharest and Edinburgh are cut in one swoop. Seasonal suspensions are announced for Moscow, Shannon, Pisa, Malaga, Valencia, Kiev, Buenos Aires, Prague and Guayaquil. Fortaleza and Recife are suspended and frequencies are cut way back when they return.
Just like that, the grand international plans have been scaled back. The theory – that you could fly thin international routes year round if there was no competition – didn’t prove out in most cases. Don’t get me wrong, Delta has a much larger international footprint than they did 5 years ago. And the addition of Northwest’s extensive Asian market gives them a stronghold they could never built themselves. This doesn’t mean the airline is withering away – hardly. And they’ve moved relatively quickly to cut bait where they were losing money – a nice change from years past.
But as an airline dork, it was interesting to watch Delta quickly try to match Pan Am’s global footprint. No airline since Pan Am has been able to grow as extensively across the globe, but Delta looked like it was heading in that direction. However, without the protection and regulation that Pan Am enjoyed there was no way to make it work (I know, the economy didn’t help). And I’m sure that Delta’s pullback also means that we won’t see another airline try for years.