If you’ve ever questioned why airlines launch new routes between some cities, when other combinations might seem more logical, the answer is actually part of a complicated formula. Those route maps at the back of the in-flight magazine aren’t random; they are the result of careful industry analysis, with each route potentially taking years to develop before an inaugural flight ever gets off the ground. The ingredients to make a new route successful are varied—here’s the 101 on how the magic gets made.
How do airline networks work?
There are two primary ways airlines operate a network. The most common is the hub-and-spoke model, where airlines feed flights into hub cities and passengers can connect through those hubs to other cities in the network. United Airlines is a good example, given its hubs in major metropolitan centers around the country, including Chicago, Denver, Houston, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Similarly, American Airlines operates out of hubs, including Dallas–Fort Worth and Los Angeles. It’s at these points that the airline can connect passengers from smaller cities to join larger flights to other major U.S. cities like Seattle and Miami or to global destinations around the world. The logic? It’s much easier to fill flights from Fresno to San Francisco and San Francisco to Naples, Italy, than a plane that flies directly from Fresno to Naples.
This year, United is adding nonstop flights from its Newark, New Jersey, hub (which also serves the New York City area) to Naples and Prague, and between Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv. From San Francisco, United launched a nonstop flight to Amsterdam in March and year-round nonstop service to Papeete, Tahiti, in French Polynesia. Each of these hub cities sees enough demand—not only from the local market but also from the “spokes” that feed into it—to make these flights work.
Other airlines operate a point-to-point network, like Allegiant and Frontier, which fly between cities without passing people through a connecting hub. These flights rely on large amounts of leisure travelers and may not operate on a daily basis. Both models work well, but represent different strategies.
How does an airline pick its new routes?
Patrick Quayle of United Airlines is responsible for many of those route development decisions: He is the head of international route planning for the airline and works with a team of 50 to scour potential destinations to fly to from one of United’s many global hubs. The team will attest that there is always a stack of potential route opportunities on their desks to be analyzed for profitability.
Some of the considerations include the number of people who want to go to that city and how much they are willing to spend to go there. But the competition, fleet, and operational costs matter too: You can’t put a Boeing 777 with nearly 300 seats on a new route that may only support 150 paying customers, for instance. Here’s a deeper look into the factors that go into creating new flights.
Many airlines invest a great deal of resources into developing support for new flights. Because starting a new route represents a large financial risk, although with the potential to boost tourism on both sides, it makes sense that some destinations are willing to share in that responsibility.
Tourism offices might ask local travel companies with a large number of customers to commit to supporting the new flight. Destinations might also provide marketing and advertising dollars to promote the flight or even guarantee that a route will generate a minimum amount of revenue. If not, they might kick in the difference for the first year or two to allow the flight to gain enough demand to stand alone.
For example, Charleston, South Carolina, recently scored a new British Airways flight aboard the Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) to London Heathrow. The local Convention and Visitors Bureau played a big role in lobbying for the flight and to promote itself as an attractive tourism destination for Europeans.
There are even special industry events around the world where airline representatives meet with potential destination airports to explore the possibility of adding new service. It’s kind of like speed dating, where representatives go from booth to booth for brief sessions to learn about the potential viability of new routes.
Are there other airlines flying a particular route? Is there enough demand to support more than one carrier without diluting profitable fares? When United began its Reykjavík, Iceland, flight from Newark, it was going up against other airline competitors like Icelandair. Despite that, United is able to make it work because of the number of passengers it can connect from its many spoke cities via Newark.
The 2018 launch of Kenya Airways’s nonstop flight between Nairobi and New York was not only a milestone for the airline but also for Kenya. By operating the route nonstop, the airline shaves substantial time off flights from its competitors, which mostly layover in Europe. It also became a great source of national pride and has increased the amount of commercial trade between the two countries.
Governmental concerns include requesting overflight permission to use another country’s airspace, which often requires a fee. Airlines must also work with airports to ensure they can handle a new flight at a specific time because many airports are “slot-controlled,” which means planes can only take off at preapproved times to control traffic.
United relies on feedback from its top customers. Its new San Francisco to Delhi route saw immediate popularity from local industry and frequent fliers. For Amsterdam, many of the airline’s West Coast customers were often connecting through another United hub like Newark or Chicago. This type of demand led to the launch of a nonstop flight from San Francisco to the Dutch city.
How does an airline decide what is profitable?
Quayle says that economics and international relations between countries are also factors in the decision, which he calls a bit of “game theory” given the type of analysis that goes into it. A fast-growing city with a burgeoning economic scene is ripe for the picking as long as it works from one of his hubs on the right aircraft.
Naples, Italy, is a perfect example because it is a growing business and tourism hub. United will be the only carrier to fly from the United States to the southern Italian city, giving it a first-move advantage.
And it’s not only about passengers on that one route but also the connecting possibilities. Quayle says they have pinpointed more than 30 U.S. and Canadian cities that see connecting demand to Naples. Those cities would otherwise be too small to warrant their own nonstop flight.
In other instances, a city may seem like a great fit, but competition may keep fares too low to be profitable. Or the airline may not have the right aircraft for that flight length or enough crew trained to work a particular aircraft.
Then there’s the flight duration to consider. With a limited number of planes in an airline’s fleet, longer flights cost more to operate because they take away resources for other flights. Flights like United’s San Francisco to Melbourne service, which starts later this year, need two planes to fly that one route because there is a plane taking off in each direction around the same time.
Given the financial exposure of a new route, airlines can’t wait too long for a flight to make money. Some routes might take a long time to mature while others are expected to perform well immediately. Such is the case with United’s San Francisco to Papeete flight, which began as seasonal service, but now operates year-round because it is so popular.
“To be a profitable airline, you need to be nimble and adaptable,” Quayle says. “We are not afraid to make changes if we do not see a path for improvement, particularly when our resources can be better spent elsewhere.”
What happens when a new flight takes off?
The inaugural flight for a new route is often a celebration, with a party at the departure gate and VIPs on board. Government officials, tourism boards, an airline’s accounting and marketing teams, and route planners have spent years making this moment happen. It involves the right mix of research, political and economic conditions, and consumer demand to make it finally come together successfully. The clink of celebratory champagne glasses on board becomes a lot more meaningful when you consider everything that went into making it happen.
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