Courting Asia

Leif Parsons

Miami International Airport is in hot pursuit of direct flights from Asia, the city's biggest untapped luxury-spending market.

Of the city’s 14.2 million annual overnight trav­elers, 96 percent arrive by plane. And while Miami International Airport (MIA) has the Latin-American market cornered—more than 1.6 mil­lion passengers land from Brazil each year and a million or more touch down from Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela—there’s one thing missing: direct flights from Asia.

That could change soon. In June, Qatar Airways inaugurated a Doha–Miami route, becoming MIA’s first nonstop flight from the Middle East since 2008, when El Al Israel Airlines discontinued its service from Tel Aviv. Asia, it appears, is next. “We are presently working on at least three new passenger routes to the region,” says Chris Mangos, the director of marketing at MIA.

The airport says the number of Asian travelers coming through MIA is currently too small to estimate—but that doesn’t make the wealthy region any less coveted. Since 2008 traffic from Asia via connecting flights has grown 5 percent year over year. “The trending is there,” says Rolando Aedo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “Direct flights really would open up a new market.” Chinese luxury buyers made 60 percent of their purchases abroad in 2012, according to business consulting firm Bain & Company. The potential for some of these dollars to land in cash registers of high-end outlets in Bal Harbour, Brickell, the Design District and Aventura is far too lucrative to ignore.

MIA won’t disclose which airlines are considering making the flight. But John Lampl, a former airline executive, points out that long-range planes like the Airbus A380, Boeing 777-300 or B787 extended-range Dreamliner are needed, thus narrowing the list of candidates to such carriers as Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, British Airways, Lufthansa and Qantas. And don’t discount the Middle Eastern airlines. “Emirates, Etihad or Qatar could be candidates,” Lampl says.

GMCVB’s Aedo believes Japan is poised to come online next. If Tokyo signs on, the other dominoes—Mumbai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai—could fall quickly.

And MIA is ready. In 2013 the airport completed a $6.5 billion renovation. With four runways capable of handling long-range planes, it wouldn’t need any infrastructure upgrades to welcome direct service from Asia. So it’s not a matter of if, but when—and expectations are sky-high. Says Aedo, “I do think it would be disappointing if within the year we don’t have an additional market in Asia being served directly.”