Airport, British Airways make it official: New Orleans to London flights to start in 2017

London is calling.

After a four-year courtship, New Orleans airport officials made it official Thursday, announcing that British Airways will begin offering nonstop flights to London starting in March.

The flights, slated to begin March 27, will connect New Orleans to London’s Heathrow Airport four times per week.

They’re scheduled to leave London at 3:40 p.m. and arrive in New Orleans at 7:40 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Departing flights will leave New Orleans at 9:10 p.m. and arrive in London at noon the next day.

The airline plans to use Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner planes on the route. The planes can hold 214 passengers in three cabins: 154 in economy, 25 in premium economy and 35 in business.

For local officials and business leaders, Thursday’s announcement came after years of trying to persuade a large international carrier to offer nonstop service between New Orleans and a premier European destination — with London being the top choice.

More than a decade into New Orleans’ post-Hurricane Katrina recovery, nonstop service to and from such a world business capital, they reasoned, would help draw more international travelers and diversify the city’s tourism-heavy economy.

New Orleans hasn’t had a nonstop flight to Europe since 1982.

Although airport officials announced earlier this year that German airline Condor will begin nonstop service to Frankfurt starting in 2017, landing direct flights to London’s Heathrow was long considered the top prize.

Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, has about 80 airlines serving 185 destinations in 84 countries.

Transatlantic service has largely bypassed the Crescent City in favor of larger regional hubs like Houston and Atlanta since the 1970s.

The city’s pitch to British Airways, which began in 2012, included overseas visits by state governors and hard sells by business leaders and executives from across the Gulf Coast, people involved in the talks said. It also happened despite concerns that Britain’s vote this year to leave the European Union could stall it.

“We’re going to go from being a (tourism) destination to a global city again,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development group

The New Orleans airport has experienced steady growth in recent years, hitting 10.7 million passengers last year, the most in its seven-decade history.

More than 430 passengers a day travel from New Orleans to Western Europe by way of regional hubs like Atlanta, tourism officials say.

Already, New Orleans’ airport offers nonstop service to a handful of foreign cities, including several Caribbean locations and Toronto.

Miami-based National Airlines operated the first nonstop flight from New Orleans to Europe in the late 1970s. National was acquired by Pan Am in 1980 and the service ended not long after. Consumer demand fell amid the oil bust of the mid-80s and in subsequent years wasn’t great enough to entice another airline to fill the void.

Last year, Copa Airlines launched nonstop flights between New Orleans and Copa’s hub at Tocumen International Airport in Panama, giving local travelers access to dozens of destinations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

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