Delta Trims 3 ‘Focus Cities’ in Pandemic Map Rejig

Edward Russell
March 8th, 2021 at 6:26 AM EST

Delta Air Lines is cutting its number of destinations it considers “focus cities,” amid coronavirus pandemic changes to its network.

Speaking at a Raymond James conference last week, 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.

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 a nebulous marketing term at best that combines some level of extra service 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.

“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,” said Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport CEO Candace McGraw, seemingly unfazed by Hauenstein’s comments. “[Cincinnati] remains a top 20 airport on the Delta network,” she said.

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.

Austin similarly continues to attract air service during the pandemic. Alaska, Allegiant Air, Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue have all unveiled new routes from the city in 2021.

Edward Russell

Route Briefs

  • Air India will begin carrying Red Square-bound travelers with a new weekly flight between Delhi and Moscow Sheremetyevo. Flights began March 6, and mark the Indian flag carrier’s first service to the Russian capital since it suspended flights to Moscow Domodedovo in 2017.
  • It’s more outdoor fun at Alaska Airlines. The carrier will add seasonal flights between Bozeman, Mont., and San Diego and San Francisco, and Kalispell, Mont., and Los Angeles and San Diego this summer. The flights begin May 20, except for San Francisco that begins on June 17, and operate through September 7.
  • It’s the Windy City’s turn for new summer flights from American Airlines. The Oneworld alliance carrier plans seasonal nonstops between Chicago O’Hare and Billings, Fresno, Nantucket, Santa Barbara and Spokane this summer. Santa Barbara flights operate weekends from May 8; Billings, Fresno and Spokane daily from June 3; and Nantucket Saturdays from June 26. All of the routes end by September 7.

    Washington Reagan National will also receive a summer addition. American will offer a daily nonstop to popular North Carolina mountain locale Asheville from June 3-September 7. Flown with a Bombardier CRJ900, the route suggests the airline will waste no time putting its new regional jet concourse at National to good use.
  • Travelers have another option to take in the mesas and vistas of the southwestern U.S. Delta returns to Moab, Utah, on May 5 and Durango, Colo., on May 12 with daily flights from Salt Lake City. The airline last served Durango in 2008 and Moab in 2015.
  • Southwest Airlines is expanding connections at its Chicago Midway base, or hub at any other airline. New flights to Richmond begin on April 12, complementing the carrier’s existing service to Atlanta and Orlando from the Virginia capital.
  • Italians will have more options to get to the beach this summer. Wizz Air will base two Airbus A321s in Palermo, its fourth base in Italy, from June 1. Initial routes are Bologna, Basel, Verona, London Luton, Pisa, Torino and Venica-Treviso. The budget carrier will go up against the likes of Ryanair on most of the routes. Wizz also plans new service on the Brindisi-Pisa and Cagliari-Milan Malpensa routes on June 1, and on the Bologna-Brindisi and Catania-Pisa routes a day later to round out its Italian expansion.

    That’s not all the Mediterranean growth on the books for Wizz. The carrier will also add new service between Tel Aviv and three Greek isles — Heraklion, Rhodes and Santorini — beginning June 10. Mamma mia!

    Edward Russell
Edward Russell
March 8th, 2021 at 6:26 AM EST

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