As Delta Air Lines plans for a smaller future, it’s cutting its number of focus cities, making changes to its network most have expected since the coronavirus pandemic first rocked the industry a year ago.
Speaking at a Raymond James conference on Monday, Delta President Glen Hauenstein told investors that the carrier planned to reinstate just two of its five focus cities as it recovers from the Covid-19 crisis. Austin and Raleigh-Durham will return, while the label will drop from Cincinnati — a former Delta hub — Nashville and San Jose, Calif.
The move comes as a surprise to few. Covid has forced airlines to rethink their route maps, particularly what is core and what is not, as they face the prospect of being smaller than they were before the crisis for some years to come. While few have made dramatic changes, airlines have thrown out their old network rulebooks and embraced once unheard of changes — from JetBlue Airways’ decision to make a big play for Newark a United Airlines stronghold, to Southwest Airlines’ addition of 14 new destinations and counting during the pandemic.
Delta’s recovery has focused on its core. Hubs in Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City have recovered the fastest, buoyed by the return of some domestic travelers. Schedules at its Los Angeles and New York hubs are beginning to come back, with the same planned for its Boston and Seattle hubs in the second half of the year, Hauenstein said. Its Austin and Raleigh-Durham focus cities will come back as business travel recovers.
The airline’s capacity remains down nearly 36 percent in the first quarter compared with a year ago, Cirium schedules show. Austin capacity is down 38 percent and Raleigh-Durham down 50 percent.
“Raleigh and Austin are both important because they’re not dominated by another network carrier, and they’re fast, fast growing metro areas with vibrant economies,” said Brad DiFiore, a managing director at air service development advisers Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting. He added that if, early on in the crisis, one had asked him what Delta focus cities would come back, he would have named Austin and Raleigh.
This is not to say Delta sees no future in Cincinnati, Nashville, and San Jose. The airline is likely to maintain some elevated presence in Cincinnati on the back of its existing strong corporate customer base there. However, the writing has been on the wall since it closed its Cincinnati pilot base and downgraded its flight attendant base to satellite status last year. Nashville and San Jose are both strong, growing markets but dominated by Southwest and, in the latter case, Alaska Airlines.
Removing the “focus city” moniker may not actually mean much on-the-ground change. The concept is nebulous at best, combining some level of extra service on top of a normal spoke with an elevated sales presence to match strong local growth. For example in 2019, Cincinnati had 24 routes to non-Delta hubs — a vestige of its being a former hub — while Nashville had three and San Jose one, according to Cirium schedules. The former city aside, cutting some or all of these routes at the two latter airports would have little impact on Delta’s overall operations there.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport CEO Candace McGraw was unfazed by Hauenstein’s comments.
“[Cincinnati] remains a top 20 airport on the Delta network,” she said. “As demand continues to recover, we are confident Delta will continue to restore service levels to pre-pandemic levels that serve both business and leisure passengers in our region.”
Delta will face new competition at its remaining focus cities where it returns. In December, JetBlue unveiled seven new routes from Raleigh-Durham, a city that the airline’s Head of Revenue and Planning Scott Laurence has described as a “standout in a successful region.” He did not go as far as to say the carrier would open its own base in Raleigh-Durham, though the addition would fit well geographically between JetBlue’s concentrations in the Northeast and Florida.
A Delta spokesperson declined to elaborate on Hauenstein’s comments.