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Delta to debut Sydney flights

It was another G’day for travelers looking to head Down Under.

Delta Air Lines Inc., which recently became the world’s biggest carrier by merging with Northwest Airlines, said Thursday that it would begin nonstop service between Los Angeles International Airport and Sydney, Australia, starting in July.

The start of Sydney flights -- which may prompt a fare war on the popular U.S.-Aussie route next year -- is part of a broader move by Atlanta-based Delta to expand international operations at LAX, airline officials said.

“You will be able to get anywhere in the world on Delta,” said Bob Cortelyou, Delta’s senior vice president of network planning. For trips to Asia, Australia and South America, “we can funnel the whole country through LAX.”

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In addition to Sydney, Delta will begin nonstop service between LAX and Sao Paulo, Brazil, beginning May 21. The new Sao Paulo service would complement the three weekly nonstop flights currently flown by Korean Air, an airline alliance partner.

Delta said it also would increase nonstop service from LAX to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport from seven departures a day to eight to improve connection times for travelers from the Northeast flying to Sydney.

At LAX, Delta said it planned to move Northwest flight operations from Terminal 2 on the north side of the airport to Terminal 5 on the south side by June. Despite the merger, the two airlines are still being operated as separate entities and will continue to fly under their respective heritage names for at least another two years. But the airlines’ reservation system is expected to be merged by the first quarter of 2010.

Delta’s new Sydney service is expected to escalate competition -- and lower air fares for travelers -- on one of the most popular routes that has long been dominated by Australia’s Qantas Airways.

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“This is a market that needs somebody else in there,” said Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based consultant who runs travel advice website Tripplers View.com. “It’s good for competition and good for travelers.”

In addition to Delta, a new airline started by British billionaire Richard Branson, V Australia, is slated to begin service from LAX to Sydney in February. By midsummer, Southern California travelers will have a choice of four airlines when traveling nonstop to Australia: V Australia, Delta, Qantas and United Airlines.

The start of Delta’s Sydney service will also boost LAX, which this year has been hurt by airlines cutting flights amid slumping demand for air travel. The addition of Delta and V Australia is expected to solidify LAX as the nation’s busiest hub for flights to and from Australia.

Many of those headed to Sydney on Delta are expected to be connecting passengers from smaller U.S. cities. Under a recent marketing agreement, Alaska Airlines passengers can make a connection at LAX to take the Sydney flight.

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“With Delta’s vast domestic network, I can’t see how this flight wouldn’t succeed,” Trippler said.

V Australia is also looking at tapping passengers flying its sister airline, Virgin America, another Branson start-up that flies between LAX and several major cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Washington. The airline’s check-in counters and gates at LAX are located with those of Virgin America. The airlines are considering code sharing, in which they can sell tickets for each other’s flights.

To travelers, the effect of Delta’s entry was immediate. Even before Delta formally announced that it would begin the Sydney service Thursday, Qantas and V Australia began cutting fares.

The lowest round-trip fare available on a V Australia flight from LAX to Sydney in July fell to $890. Fares during the summer months have typically hovered around $1,500.

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For its part, Delta said it was offering a promotional fare of $499 one-way. The airline plans to use new Boeing 777-200LR aircraft for the route. The plane has the world’s longest range.

To fend off the new competition, Qantas has matched Delta’s fare and recently began the first Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet service between LAX and Australia. The double-decker aircraft is the world’s largest.

The flagship carrier for Australia has enjoyed immense profits from the route, which it has dominated for more than a decade. On certain days, Qantas operates four fights with 747 and A380 jumbo jets, making it the busiest foreign carrier at LAX.

But earlier this year, Australia and the U.S. agreed to a landmark aviation pact that allowed any U.S. or Australian airline to fly between the two countries, clearing the way for new entrants such as Delta.

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peter.pae@latimes.com


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