This month”s senior aviation personality having his say is Phil Seymour, the managing director of IBA, an aviation consultancy service based near Gatwick Airport. Phil's long industry career includes spells at British Airways, British Caledonian and Saudia. Last year he distinguished himself by taking part in the New York Marathon finishing in less than five hours ” 22,366th out of the 35,000 who took part. He ran for dEBra, a charity which supports those who suffer from the debilitating disease Epidermolysis Bullosa.”For so long, hub airports were the backbone of much of the commercial aviation world. Now, however, changes in economic drivers, aircraft technology and competition are forcing permanent changes in the network structures.
For the largest, full service and long haul operators, the logistics of the hub concept are simple. It seems inconceivable for Heathrow not to be dominated by British Airways, Frankfurt by Lufthansa, Atlanta by Delta Air Lines, Dallas-Fort Worth by American Airlines and so on. However, the notion that short and medium haul flights can be routed via these large and often congested centres so that a percentage of the passengers can connect onto the long haul service, is to forget the growing and important number of passengers who have a final destination which does not involve transferring onto a larger aircraft. Although the hub still has a crucial role to play, connecting regional services through a hub could be compared with using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Another driver for the hub has been the growth of the global airline alliance systems. The emphasis is on connectivity, ease of transfer and so on, with the alliance members gaining efficiencies by using each other”s ground staff and services. They then offer the passengers yet more connection choices and save on cost duplication but the theme is getting common ” emphasis on connecting traffic.
British Airways has consolidated further at its Heathrow hub, transferring long haul services from its secondary base at Gatwick, where easyJet has expanded (among others). British Airways, in concentrating its Gatwick network on European and regional services, is now facing competition at a hub from an operator who only uses some of the hub benefits.
easyJet has grown its presence at Gatwick enormously in a very short space of time, offering service to nearly 30 destinations. Using the traditional low cost model as a basis, easyJet passengers cannot connect, through check-in and so on. But why would they want to? Travelling from Prague to Liverpool for example ” where is the benefit in a cheap flight from the Czech Republic to London and a connection on to Liverpool, when you simply travel point-to-point.
In the United States many of the so-called legacy carriers have taken similar long hard looks at their reliance on hub-and-spoke networks. United Airlines is a good example but ultimately the carrier appears on course to retain a mega-hub like Chicago O”Hare but in tandem, offer low-cost and regional services. So, for United, Chicago O”Hare ends up being an operational hub for international routes, mainline domestic services, United Express and Ted. The hub-and-spoke system remains but with alterations and significant point-to-point additions.
A trend does appear to be growing for an increase in regional airline activity at airports once thought of as the preserve of the ”big airplane”. Here would appear another warning sign for the legacy carriers. Passengers may want more point-to-point service but just because the mainline carriers may not have the flexibility or route network to provide it does not mean others cannot. Operationally the ”hub” still has its benefits but those benefits are changing. The regional jet has clearly changed the network maps, nowhere more so than in the US where its growth has been concentrated; IBA research suggests that in 2004 close to 20% of US domestic air traffic was carried by regional airlines. Yet a large proportion of traffic still flows through the traditional airports such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, O”Hare, Denver and Houston. People still want to visit these cities for business and leisure and many still want to travel onwards to all parts of the globe. But given a choice, a mainline traditional jet at peak times twice per day to connect with other services or smaller aircraft at much higher frequencies becomes a telling convenience factor.
Point-to-point services are growing and becoming more popular but there will always be a need for feeder services onto larger aircraft with longer routes. This is not just a diplomatic way of saying both Airbus and Boeing are right in their choices to build the 787 and A380, but a simple way to say that travellers want choice and as we all know, may not be prepared too often to pay for it. Regional operators can make point-to-point services work from large airports and even low cost carriers are knocking on some doors.
The hub airport is not dying, it is changing. In fact, for many it has changed already and unless the long established residents recognise, accept and adapt to this fact, they are very likely to be the dying breed”.