Is your city about to get the gift of more direct flights?

As carriers rebuild networks, they’re eyeing new cities where they can build large, hub-type operations to capture the loyalty and wallets of the local market. While New York and Los Angeles remain competitive airline cities, lots of planes are now pointed toward fast-growing economies where one airline doesn’t yet dominate—places like Austin, Texas, Boston and North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham region.

Already, the June schedule shows Austin with almost as many airline seats as were offered in June 2019, according to Cirium, an aviation data company. Total seat counts for the four largest airlines will still be down 17% compared with two years ago. Delta is trying to build a small hub in Austin, calling it one of its “focus cities,” while American and Southwest are responding with a wave of their own flights.

American, which has its largest hub just up the road at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, flew to eight cities from Austin in June 2019—mostly just its hubs. This June, American will offer nonstops to 18 cities.

And American is far from alone circling Austin:

  • Alaska will have 60% more seats there in June than it did in June 2019.
  • Southwest will serve 37 cities, up from 33.
  • Hawaiian just started nonstops from Honolulu.
  • Delta, which added nine gates and a Sky Club in Austin just before the pandemic, is up 3% in flights for June compared with June 2019, even though the airline is down 23% in flights overall, according to Cirium.

“This is the right time for airlines to ask for more gates, before our 34 gates get occupied completely again,” says Jacqueline Yaft, chief executive officer of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Competing hub operations offer both low prices and ample nonstop flights—an ideal situation for travelers.

When airline schedules are full, carriers generally hesitate to make wholesale change; they usually adjust schedules seasonally. Adding lots of flights in a city means either taking delivery of a bunch of new planes or pulling them from other markets to flood a target city. But with the emerging travel restart and long-haul international travel restricted, airlines have hundreds of grounded planes and the ability to reimagine their networks.

One clear strategy so far: Carriers are quickly adjusting to the demand for leisure destinations and not bothering yet with restoring hourly service to traditional business-travel markets.

Only a few cities are large enough to fill lots of flights on multiple airlines. Five carriers—American, Delta, United, Southwest and Alaska—have large hub operations in Los Angeles. New York and Chicago sustain multiple hubs. For others—think Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Miami—competition is more limited, usually with one dominant airline, a good-sized Southwest operation nearby and maybe an ultra-low-cost option like Spirit or Frontier. Other airlines serve those cities, but typically only to their own hubs.

Pre-pandemic, Delta had an aggressive hub-expansion strategy, building big operations in Seattle and Boston and identifying San Jose, Calif., Austin, Raleigh, Nashville and Cincinnati as focus cities. In March, Delta said it was dropping San Jose, Nashville and Cincinnati from its list to concentrate on Austin, Raleigh and Boston.

Ms. Yaft says Austin’s airline service really started ramping up with announcements of corporate relocations and tech company expansions, along with a housing-market boom. Apple, Samsung, Tesla and others are building in the Austin area. Typically airlines try to stockpile gates to prevent competitors from expanding, but that’s not the whole story in Austin.

“I think it’s not just a strategy of blocking or grabbing. A big part is the need. The demand is actually there for them to be here,” she says.

Raleigh-Durham was once an American hub, but that ended in 1995. American now has a hub acquired from US Airways in nearby Charlotte. Delta has the world’s largest hub not far away in Atlanta. Both might be tempted to just want to funnel all of the RDU traffic through hubs. But the growth of the local economy has made RDU an attractive market for nonstop flights.

In June, JetBlue will fly to 10 cities from RDU, up from three in June 2019. JetBlue will have 53% more seats in June than two years earlier, according to schedules compiled by Cirium on Monday. Delta was gobbling up market-share before the pandemic, says Michael Landguth, CEO of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, but now there’s been a reset. American and others are adding flights.

“Some of it is an opportunity, a carrier like JetBlue looking for an opportunity to establish a foothold at RDU,” Mr. Landguth says.

One attraction to airlines: While business travel may be reduced for years, local growth among businesses relocating to Raleigh-Durham means there may be just as much business travel as before the pandemic because the pie got bigger. One example: Apple on Monday announced a new Research Triangle campus with 3,000 jobs.

Airlines “see long-term growth potential in this market so, I think they are going to continue to fight this thing out,” Mr. Landguth says.

Delta and JetBlue have been battling to be biggest in Boston, but American is now expanding, too, making Logan International Airport one of the most competitive in the country.

In Boston, Delta says its rebuilding will start in the second half of this year. American has already expanded to 22 destinations served, up from 14 in June 2019. American is entering into a partnership with JetBlue where they’ll sell tickets on some of each other’s flights and connect passengers in New York and Boston, setting up a major showdown there.

“Even pre-pandemic, we were one of the most competitive markets,” says Ed Freni, aviation director for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Boston’s Logan International Airport.

In addition to the American/JetBlue vs. Delta prize fight, Mr. Freni notes that United has been adding flights in Boston, flying to Florida nonstop from Boston for the first time.

“We’ve got such diverse scheduling it’s attracting a lot of people,” Mr. Freni says.

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