How British Airways is trying to conquer America (and its low-cost rivals)

Chris Leadbeater
BA now flies non-stop to a remarkable 27 US cities, including - from next April - Pittsburgh - This content is subject to copyright.

It is not unusual for these pages to bring notice of a new British Airways flight to the United States. In the past few years, our national flag-carrier has launched a broad range of direct services to American cities - from the connection between Heathrow and New Orleans which started in March 2017 to the hop into the Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh (also from Heathrow) which is scheduled to begin operations next April.

In between, there have been fresh forays to Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, San Jose and Oakland. And although the latter link, to San Francisco's nearest neighbour, quietly tumbled from the timetable this weekend (with no word on its future), the trend has been for the airline to look west with optimism, as it seeks to battle ambitious low-cost upstarts Wow Air and Norwegian in the increasingly competitive transatlantic market.

So this month's announcement that British Airways is also going to point its nose-cones towards Charleston should not be a surprise. As of April 4 next year, Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners in BA livery will make the 4,065-mile, nine-hour jump between Heathrow and the South Carolina city. They will fly the route twice a week in a seasonal affair that, for now, is due to operate until October 24 2019.

While this seven-month summer remit suggests the service will largely be aimed at tourists who want to visit the American South in the hottest months of the year, there will also be room for higher-paying passengers. The aircraft will be split into three cabins, with 35 seats in business class (Club World), 25 in premium economy (World Traveller Plus) and 154 in economy (World Traveller).

Flights will depart on Thursdays and Sundays - and, along with Pittsburgh, will raise the number of US airports served by the airline to 27.

But in other ways, the announcement is a real surprise - as is made clear by the merest of glances at the airport's arrivals board. Not only will this be the only international flight to touch down on its runway, it will be the only service to cross the Atlantic in doing so. Until April next year, the misleadingly named Charleston International is wholly an American hub. It does not even receive flights from Mexico or Canada - its furthest-flung destination being Seattle-Tacoma in north-westerly Washington State, as offered by Alaska Airlines. The route map is strictly domestic; there are, for example, no flight options from France or Holland either. If BA is adding a new string to its bow in flying to South Carolina, then Charleston is very happy to be the target of the arrow.

However, for all that it will break a mould of sorts, this is an expansion without risk for British Airways. The comments supplied by its Director of Network and Alliances Sean Doyle in support of the announcement - "You can’t help but get sucked in to the old-world charm of Charleston; its cobblestone streets, colourful houses and historical buildings make it a unique city" - are no more than PR padding, but they strike a truth.

"You can’t help but get sucked in to the old-world charm of Charleston" Credit: getty

Charleston is an attractive place to land - a city of just 135,000 souls; a place whose small size will allow passengers to ease themselves into the flow of America in a way less possible in busier landing spots like New York, Washington DC and Miami. It is also, indeed, full of "old-world charm". It is the oldest city in South Carolina, and one of the oldest in the USA - founded as far back as 1670 as the British colonial outpost of "Charles Town" (in honour of Charles II, who was in his Restoration pomp at the time). It still sings of this era, and of the fledgling America whose growth it witnessed - in its market hall (thecharlestoncitymarket.com); in its vast array of historic churches, of various creeds laid out along Meeting Street; in the antebellum mansions which adorn the waterside along East Bay Street; in southerly Oyster Point, where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet - as they did in the 17th century, when their joint currents induced arrivals from Europe to choose the site as a feasible option for a settlement.

Myrtle Beach Credit: GETTY

Students of US history will be aware that Charleston was also the spark to the inferno of the American Civil War. The first bullets of the conflict were fired at Fort Sumter, out in the bay, on April 11 1861. The site is now a National Monument (nps.gov/fosu).

But Charleston is a smart addition to BA's route map beyond its undoubted appeal to tourists. For all its fame as one of the most evocative segments of the American South (home to some lovely beaches along its 187 miles of Atlantic coast), South Carolina has been relatively hard to reach for British travellers. Until April, the most convenient direct-flight options for a trip to the state from the UK are Atlanta (in Georgia, as served by BA, Delta and Virgin Atlantic - 300 miles from Charleston), Orlando (Florida, via BA, Norwegian, Thomas Cook Airlines and Virgin - 380 miles from Charleston), and an unheralded American Airlines service to Charlotte - in next-door North Carolina but still some 200 miles over the horizon from this city on the seafront.

Savannah Credit: GETTY

None of these numbers make for journeys of a formidable length, and, for many people, one of the joys of glimpsing South Carolina is that the experience often requires a fly-drive package. But now, Charleston can be the start-point for the road trip rather than a stop midway along. And with numerous other Southern attractions waiting through the windscreen (from the old-fashioned South Carolina bucket-and-spade resort of Myrtle Beach, up the coast, to the equally historic city of Savannah over the state line in Georgia - and the Outer Banks, where the Wright Brothers first flew, in North Carolina), there should be no shortage of passengers willing to take a seat once British Airways's leap into the not-very-unknown goes skyward next spring.

How to do it

The new BA flight will make road-trips through South Carolina more attractive - although plenty of packages already exist. America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americasyoulikeit.com) sells a comprehensive 12-night "South Carolina Discovery" break from £1,615 a head, including flights, accommodation and car hire. Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) offers the 11-night "Flavours of South Carolina" from £1,775 per person, on the same basis. And Complete North America (0115 961 0590; completenorthamerica.com) dispenses the broader "Georgia, The Carolinas & The Great Smoky Mountains", which takes 15 days over its examination of the three states in question - from £2,999 per person, again including flights, car hire and hotels.