Another hub bites the dust — Cleveland. Who’s next?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Aeroplanepics0112

Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Aeroplanepics0112


First Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, then Memphis, now Cleveland; airline hubs are being cut.

The reason for the cuts? When Delta merged with Northwest, they didn’t need as many hubs as the two carriers had separately. Detroit, Minneapolis and Atlanta survived. Cincinnati and Memphis didn’t. Now, after scores of promises, Cleveland bites the dust.

I still remember a trip to Cincinnati with my son over a decade ago. Delta dominated the airport, with hundreds of flights every day and the TSA security line in their terminal, which took over an hour, still ranks as the longest I’ve waited in, ever.

My, how things have changed. Travel to Cincinnati today — not only have all the airlines merged into one terminal, but the lines are usually trivial. The number of flights have been cut drastically. For example, the three daily flights from San Francisco to Cincinnati have been cut to one during the summer, and none in the fall-winter.

A side note about the hub system. Hub cities aren’t necessarily those with the biggest populations; they are airports that airlines use as connecting points to get passengers between other cities. With a hub system, a carrier, in theory, can offer reasonably seamless service to a lot more destinations than with only non-stop flights. “In theory” is the operative phrase, as passengers discover on a regular basis due to weather and other delays.

Hub airports have the advantage of a lot of non-stop flights, although the disadvantage can be higher air fares if one carrier dominates, in what is known as a “fortress hub.”

As part of the approval process when United merged with Continental, the merge airlines promised not to cut flights for two years at Cleveland. The merger was complete in March 2012. Now, this coming June, two months past that two year commitment, United will cut their daily departures from the airport by more than half — from about 165 to 72 “peak-day” departures (meaning even less flights during slow periods).

While this news is making Clevelanders unhappy, it’s also has to be worrisome for residents of US Airways hub cities Philadelphia, Charlotte and perhaps even Phoenix. American Airlines has not said anything about closing hubs, but St. Louis travelers who remember the TWA days know that the American takeover meant losing first their hub status, then most of their remaining flights.

American’s hubs are currently Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, Los Angeles, JFK and Chicago. And while they might not get rid of all US Airways hubs, it’s hard to imagine the new airline will need nine of them. (US Airways’ other hub is Washington’s National Airport, where slots are highly coveted; other carriers will no doubt take over as many flights as possible.)

Now, in this case, the new American Airlines agreed as a condition of the merger to maintain the existing US Airways hubs in Charlotte, Philadelphia and Phoenix for a period of at least three years. But beyond 2017? To me, the only question is which American closes first.

  • MeanMeosh

    FYI, the agreement with the Ohio AG was actually to keep the hub going for 5 years, but there were escape hatches after years 2, 3, and 4 that UA apparently decided to exercise.

    Your trepidation is understandable, but I don’t know that it’s a foregone conclusion that CLT and PHL are dead, at least if USAA is smart about it. Others in the know have commented on this, but if Doug Parker and his team play this right, both will see some retooling, but can co-exist with and complement MIA and JFK. For example, MIA is a horrible spot for domestic connections but a good one for Caribbean/Latin American connections, so USAA would be wise to shift more domestic connections to CLT while funneling international ones through MIA. Likewise, PHL would arguably make for a better domestic connection point than JFK, where AA has struggled for years. You can already see some evidence that this is the direction AA is headed. The CLT-GIG flight just got the axe, and AA appears to be abandoning the idea of competing head-to-head with UA and DL in the NYC-area and focusing on more targeted flying from smaller cities (i.e. they completely abandoned LGA-ATL).

    PHX is another story, and the folks in Arizona should probably be the most concerned. The conventional wisdom seems to be that AA will finally give up on LAX and keep the PHX hub for western connections, but I’m not convinced of that. Add to that the fact that AA and Oneworld appear to be setting up DFW as the gateway hub to Asia, and you’re left with two largely domestic hubs out west. I don’t see how that works, but we’ll see. As I like to say, there’s probably a very good reason why I’m not in airline operations management.

  • Sean

    I agree. PHL is safe. Even though JFK is so close, its slot restricted. JFK will stick to O&D traffic while PHL will take care of connecting the huge presence US has in the North East. Same with CLT. it gives the new American a solid south-east hub. Obviously DCA isn’t going anywhere. The interesting thing will be PHX. DFW is fortress…but not west enough for west coast connections. Don’t know how much space new American has to grow at LAX…but they have been growing some. Also in play is the partnership with Alaska….and with Delta continually growing at SEA I can only see AA and AS form a tiger partnership for traffic up and down the west coast.