Honey, I Shrunk The Hubs. This Christmas, Big Airline Hubs All Have Fewer Departures

Officials at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the second-biggest American Airlines hub, expect Christmas holiday traffic to be very similar to the pre-pandemic level it reached in 2019, with one notable exception.

American’s daily departures, which reached around 700 in December 2019, now stand at around 555 daily, a decline of about 21%. In January 2023, once traffic slows after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, daily departures will continue around 555, but will fall as low as 418 on Saturday, Jan. 14, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

The decline may be dramatic, but it does not indicate any change in Charlotte’s standing as a major hub – the third-biggest single airline hub in the world. In fact, while departures have fallen, the numbers of both seats and available seat miles increased between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2023. (Available seat miles measures capacity by counting each seat flown one mile.)

In sum, the numbers show the U.S. airline industry’s shift from the use of regional jets, which is primarily a result of the pilot shortage, combined with overall downsizing that occurred during the pandemic. But in Charlotte, the smaller aircraft were replaced with larger aircraft.

Of the 555 daily Charlotte departures this winter, 368 are on mainline jets, the most ever, American said. So despite fewer departures, the number of seats increased 0.6% between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2023, the airline said. This indicates larger aircraft. Meanwhile the number of available seat miles increased by 6.6%.

During the record Christmas holiday travel season in 2019, American scheduled as many as 724 daily Charlotte departures on Jan. 2, a particularly heavy travel day. Even on slow days in post-holiday January 2019, the total never fell below 574 departures.

Similar dynamics have also occurred at the other leading single airline hubs.

In Atlanta, the world’s largest single airline hub, where Delta daily departures once reached around 1,000, the number this month is 759. Of those, 677 or about 92% are Delta mainline.

Looking ahead, in July 2023 Delta’s daily Atlanta departures will climb to 853 including 766 mainline.

“We’re still at roughly 85% of our 2019 capacity currently, which we continue to bring back in a measured way while ensuring we’re doing so in a way that is operationally responsible and feasible,” said Delta spokesman Drake Castaneda.

In Dallas, where American operates the second largest single airline hub, January 2023 daily departures will generally be between 650 and 750. In February, a normally slow travel month, daily departures will fall as 585.

That’s down from around 900 daily in summer 2019. On Jan. 2, 2019, American had 869 daily Dallas departures. This January, daily departures will be between 700 and 750.

In Dallas, as in Charlotte, while the number of daily departures is down, capacity is up. The number of seats is up 9.7% while the number of available seat miles is up 2.5%.

At one time, Charlotte competed with Houston to be third largest. But in 2012, United cut back from its 650 daily Houston departures to about 611. At the time, hub carrier US Airways had 650 daily Charlotte departures.

Today Houston has approximately 384 daily departures with 240 operated by United mainline, United said. In fact, among United hubs, both fast-growing Denver and Chicago have surpassed Houston. Both Chicago and Denver now have between 400 and 450 daily departures.

While bigger airplanes can accommodate more passengers, Faye Malarkey Black, CEO of the Regional Airline Association, says the diminution in frequencies has consequences for hubs and even worse consequences for smaller airports in the Carolinas and elsewhere. Many smaller airports were served largely or exclusively by regional jets.

For large airports, “When you talk about declining departures but increasing seats, more seats is not always a good thing, particularly when an airport gains seats but loses frequency or destination options or both,” Black said. “An airplane taking off twice a day to your desired market, or dropping your market altogether and forcing a connection or drive, on bigger aircraft, is not typically going to be viewed as better than an airplane taking off eight times a day to multiple destination options.”

Historically, Charlotte has been near the top of the list in terms of the percentage of regional jet flights from the hub. In 2021, the regional jet share at Charlotte was 54%, second among the top ten U.S. hubs. (Chicago was first with 57%.) Nationwide, regionals had 41% of departures in 2021, down from 43% in 2020.

While Charlotte regional jet flights can be replaced with mainline flights, North Carolina’s smaller airports are in a different spot. At some, declines in service have been precipitous.

Between October 2019 and October 2022, Greenville lost 59% of its flights, New Bern lost 45%, Greensboro lost 36%, Jacksonville lost 35%, Fayetteville lost 30% and Raleigh/Durham lost 22%.

“I’ve been in the small community air service business for two and a half decades,” Black said. “I’ve never seen a bigger threat to small community air service as we know it. In many cases, those passengers will become drivers — and the highway traffic fatality rate is soaring.”

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