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Nonstop to London? Well, almost

In June, British Airways will launch daily nonstop service from London's Gatwick Airport to a growing Rocky Mountain metropolitan area known worldwide for its snow and winter sports.

That's right: Denver.But Salt Lake City could be next.

The decision by British Airways to serve the world's 11th-busiest airport comes as little surprise. Denver International had been without nonstop service to London since Continental Airlines canceled its flight during a corporate reorganization two years ago.

Some observers thought United Airlines, DIA's hub carrier, would act first. But British Airways took an $800,000 marketing incentive from the airport and made Denver its 22nd U.S. destination.

What this development means to Salt Lake International Airport and its own quest for a nonstop flight to London, or any other transoceanic destination, is unclear. Some local officials, however, see British Airways' pending arrival in Denver and its interest in touring Salt Lake International this spring as two more indications that Utahns will be hopping nonstop flights out of North America in the near future.

"It's our time," said Russ Widmar, executive director of the Salt Lake City Airport Authority. "This is a city that can support it. We have the statistics. Some (airline) will see the opportunity."

Widmar predicts a nonstop international flight will be in place before the 2002 Winter Games, just four years from now. British Airways' London-Denver flight could do several things to encourage that.

It is likely that at least one carrier now serving Salt Lake International will start or re-schedule a Salt Lake-Denver flight to feed British Airways' London-Denver service. If that shuttle flight is consistently full or near capacity, it could send a message to the airline industry that there is enough Salt Lake traffic to sustain a nonstop London flight.

And if the feeder plane is packed, fewer Utahns might be taking Delta Air Lines to Cincinnati or Atlanta and going on to London from there, or taking American Airlines to Chicago or Dallas-Fort Worth to catch one of that carrier's London nonstops.

"As soon as current carriers find a dilution of loads (passengers and cargo) on their flights (to London), they're going to want to recapture that market," said Keith Christensen, a member of the Salt Lake City Council and the Utah Air Travel Commission.

The obvious way to reclaim those passengers would be to fly directly from Salt Lake City to London.

"Salt Lake can, without question, support and sustain international service to London," Christensen said, adding that British Airways' Denver-London flight could provide the incentive for an airline to finally commit to Salt Lake City-London service.

Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, a member of the airport authority's board of directors, fears the new Denver flight could have the opposite effect.

"You could say, `Look at all these people who want to go (to London), so we ought to do' " a nonstop flight, he said. "On the other hand, you could say, `We could keep feeding them this way' " to hubs like Denver where nonstop flights already exist.

Garn's frustration has been that potential nonstop providers don't seem to recognize the amount of traffic that pours into Salt Lake City from smaller airports around the Rocky Mountain region.

"I think some airline is going to finally recognize the feed that comes out of here," he said. "I personally hope that Delta wakes up to the potential."

There are indications that Delta, one of two hub carriers at Salt Lake International along with domestic Southwest Airlines, may be giving a Salt Lake City-London route another look. During a visit to Salt Lake City late last year, Delta president and CEO Leo F. Mul-lin told airport officials and legislative leaders his airline would revisit a Salt Lake-London route, a prospect it rejected two years ago.

Delta, a sponsor of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, is negotiating to become a sponsor of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. If that happens, the airline could be more motivated to offer international service from the host city's airport.

The Utah Air Travel Commission recently approached the Salt Lake Organizing Committee asking for a resolution supporting British Airways' interest in Salt Lake City. But the Olympic trustees said that would be a conflict because the official airline of the U.S. Olympic Committee is United Airlines and another carrier may sponsor the 2002 Games. SLOC did say it would support a more general resolution in support of nonstop international service.

"Certainly, we didn't get everything we wanted from the organizing committee, but my feeling is that's understandable," Christensen said. "It's not all that disappointing."

The airport's best bet might now hinge on the expected visit of British Airways representatives this spring. But even if that goes well, don't expect an immediate announcement.

"Look how long it's taken us to just go to Denver," John Lampl, British Airways' vice president of communications, said Thursday from London. "Denver was one of the biggest cities in the country that didn't have direct service to London and we have finally decided, yes, it's an area we believe can support service."

Lampl said British Airways will monitor the number of passengers on any feeder flight from Salt Lake City to the nonstop Denver-London flight.

"Based on the success of that, at some future time we would try and assess it and consider Salt Lake having its own service," he said.