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U.S. airlines expanding in international markets

Mired in losing battles with discounters at home, the six big traditional U.S. airlines are rapidly expanding internationally.

A USA TODAY analysis of data from airline schedule tracker OAG shows American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United have sharply increased their flying to foreign destinations in the last year. US Airways, up modestly for the period, hopes to expand in the Caribbean and Latin America next year.

The big carriers are shifting more capacity to international routes because demand is strong and they can make more money. Airline consultant Jon Ash says the absence of competition from discounters makes international routes attractive. Low-cost airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran don't fly to Europe, Asia or Latin America. USA TODAY finds:

For December 2004, the six airlines collectively have increased seats on foreign routes 11 percent from a year earlier. Seats on U.S. flights are up 3 percent.

Continental, leading the pack, has added 16 percent more seats on international routes.

The big carriers have added 13 percent more seats to the Far East and 18 percent to Central America. Europe, already a giant market, has seen 8 percent growth.

The trend is accelerating. Last week, American announced plans to shrink money-losing U.S. operations, ground 15 planes and expand flights to Japan. That followed United's Oct. 6 announcement that between now and March, it will add international flights, cut domestic flights and reduce its fleet by 68 planes.

Airlines report strong demand on foreign routes from leisure and business travelers. As a result, the average fare to Europe, as of June 30, was up 8.3 percent from two years earlier, according to Ash's firm, InterVistas-ga2. The average fare to Asia was up 6.5 percent. But the average fare within the USA was down 1.4 percent.

China is a particularly strong magnet for new flights because its economy is growing so fast. United and Northwest are the only U.S. airlines currently allowed to fly to the mainland. American, Continental and Delta are seeking authority to start flights to China.

Contributing: Barbara Hansen