|Delta planes at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York|
Major airlines are fighting the biggest war in 15 years over the lucrative Pacific route linking Australia and the US, experts say.
Carriers are slashing prices and offering special deals after US giant Delta and Virginâs V-Australia entered the market this year â“ just as the downturn grounds swathes of passengers.
âItâs not a pretty place right now,â said Peter Harbison, of the Center for Asia-Pacific Aviation research group.
Analysts are tipping at least one airline to pull out within months after the new players muscled in on a route long dominated by Australiaâs Qantas and US carrier United Airlines.
Fares are touching all-time lows, less than half of those paid a year ago, on a route that has not been so competitive since Continental and Northwest pulled out in the early 1990s.
âI think [fares are] probably about as low as theyâve ever been. Itâs not just the competition and the arrival on the route of V-Australia and Delta,â said Tom Ballantyne, chief correspondent for Orient Aviation magazine.
âThe current recession is hitting the airline industry very hard, particularly the high-yielding business-class traffic.â
The entry of Delta, the worldâs biggest airline, this month sparked a furious round of discounting on what is one of the globeâs most profitable routes.
Some fares have dropped to just US$530 return and carriers are offering extra incentives, such as VAustraliaâs free limo pick-up for business passengers.
Australian flag-carrier Qantas is selling business-class seats two-for-one and has taken the âunprecedentedâ step of letting children fly free.
âThis is the first sale of its kind for many, many years,â a Qantas spokeswoman said.
Analysts are convinced the bloodletting will kill off one player, possibly as early as October, with V-Australia tipped as the most likely casualty.
âItâs unlikely that all of the carriers will continue to serve on the route. There are simply too many seats on the route and you canât fill them,â Ballantyne said.
âDelta is a pretty big airline, theyâre not going to start and then leave. But V-Australia may decide this is not worth the effort.â
However, Vâs operator Virgin Blue has announced a joint venture with Delta which is currently awaiting regulator approval.
Americaâs United has underlined its commitment to a route it has served for 24 years, while a pull-out by Qantas, which accounts for half the market, is unthinkable.
âWeâve invested heavily in that route and weâve no plans to do otherwise,â the Qantas spokeswoman said.
Until one airline blinks, passengers will be able to enjoy cheap seats on the 14-hour journey to and from Los Angeles.
âItâs fantastic for consumers â“ but very bad for airlines,â Ballantyne said.