Airlines boogie on down to US ‘music cities’

British Airways (BA) has confirmed it will operate a five times weekly London Heathrow-Nashville service, effective May-2018, with Boeing 787-8 equipment. This is overtly an inward flight promotion, encouraging Tennessee travellers to journey to London or to one of 130 onward destinations that BA offers at Heathrow, and one that should also support British business efforts in and around Nashville, which claims to have one of the fastest growing economies in the US. It means there will be 26 US cities directly accessible by BA flights from London in summer 2018 (though there is only one in the UK directly accessible from the US – London).

At the same time it is an example of a growing trend towards direct flights on thinner routes (often flown by the B787, which was designed for such a purpose) to what are classed as ‘music cities’, in the US and elsewhere. Nashville is the Music City par excellence – it has adopted that moniker as its own – and is home to country music (or at least one version of it), numerous record labels, the annual Country Music Association Awards and an industry that is worth close to USD10 billion a year to the city.

MAP – Relationship of Nashville to Memphis and BransonSource: Google Maps

The proximity of Nashville to Memphis, home to an alternative version of country music and the location of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former home that is second only to the White House in the number of annual visitors it receives, virtually begs the creation of music tours from the UK and any of those 130 connecting points. Moreover, Branson (Missouri), is nearby, another mecca of the music industry.

Nashville isn’t the first US music city to receive a direct BA flight. In 2014 the airline inaugurated a direct route from London Heathrow to Austin (the Texas state capital), a city which bills itself as ‘the live music capital of the world’. Austin is one of the most pro-active cities anywhere for the production of live popular music events; they take place throughout the year, the two best known being SXSW in February and Austin City Limits in September and October. Even the airport gets in on the act with regular performances hosted there almost every week.

TABLE – Comparison of Nashville with neighbouring airports – passenger traffic and growthSource: The Blue Swan Daily and airport reports.

Yet Austin is small and fairly insignificant otherwise, especially when compared with Houston and Dallas, and it is one of the smallest metropolitan areas in the US to have a direct service from anywhere in Europe.  Austin-Bergstrom Airport does not even get into the top 30 US airports listing.

TABLE – Comparison of Austin Bergstrom with neighbouring Texas airports – passenger traffic and growthSource: The Blue Swan Daily and airport reports.

For that reason it may appear surprising that BA chose to inaugurate the direct route but it did stress the city’s culture in its advertising, particularly its “vibrant arts and music scene”. The message did not go unheard at other airlines and Norwegian will add Austin to its flight schedule from London Gatwick Airport in Mar-2018.

BA already operates to New Orleans, the jazz capital of the US. But strangely BA itself and many other major airlines have yet failed to appreciate the potential of offering support to music festivals such as the aforementioned SXSW and Austin City Limits, or Coachella in California, or Summerfest in Milwaukee, the world’s biggest with up to 900,000 attendees.

Indeed, while BA and Norwegian tussle to attract passengers to Nashville and Austin neither BA, nor any other airline, offers any support, by offering packages, special fares or even simple promotional material, to the annual Glastonbury Festival in the West of England. Neither do the airports close to that event. Indeed, Austin Bergstrom Airport stands out like a beacon in its promotional efforts on behalf of its music city.

The airlines that put the greatest effort into the promotion of musical events for mutual benefit are mainly smaller ones like Aer Lingus and Icelandair, which sponsor events, and SAS, which hosts performances in terminals (its Norwegian division is the most proactive) and even during flights.

A report that will shortly be published: Airlines, airports, tourist organisations and the music business – the case for greater co-operation, investigates via six case studies the benefits to all parties of working together to tap the potential of music industry to stimulate sales in the air transport business..