US Airways defying US trends with healthy growth at its main Charlotte hub

Image: Left - group photo, right - map of Charlotte and distance relative to Georgia
US Airways launched daily Charlotte – Montréal-Trudeau services in July. “Montreal is a world class city with something to offer everyone,” said Senior Vice President Schedule Planning and Alliances Andrew Nocella. “With this new service, travellers can enjoy old world charm, modern cuisine, or explore the ‘Double Decker City’ – one above ground and one below in La ville souterraine (the underground city). No matter the season, an adventure can always be had in Montreal.”

Logo: US AirwaysHandling 33.2 million passengers in 2007 made Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (CLT) in North Carolina the 16th busiest airport in the US and 30th busiest in the world. It is the main hub for US Airways, which is responsible for around 85% of all flights at the airport, although many are operated by its partner airlines Air Wisconsin, Chautauqua, Mesa, Piedmont, PSA and Republic. Some of these carriers also operate on behalf of other carriers at the airport.

The airport lies just 230 miles (365 kilometres) north-east of Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport with over 89 million passengers in 2007, and home of Delta Air Lines.

In late 2006 an attempt by US Airways to take over Delta gave Charlotte airport cause for concern as this would likely have had major implications for the airport’s route network.

Chart: Charlotte airport 1998-2007 Annual passengers (millions)
Source: BTS RITA

Traffic growth in recent years at CLT has been healthy and unlike many other US airports it survived the consequences of ‘9/11′ relatively unscathed. In the last four years traffic has grown by an impressive 45%.

Chart: Charlotte airport seasonality
Source: Charlotte Airport

Traffic demand is very stable across the year with the exception of January, February and September. Passenger numbers in the first half of 2008 are up 5.5% at a time when many other US airports are struggling. According to USA Today research, Charlotte will experience a year-on-year domestic capacity reduction of ‘only’ 2.8% this November. The only major US airports that will see fewer capacity cuts are Denver (-1.5%), Miami (-1.9%), Seattle (-2.1%) and Washington National (-2.4%).

New routes focus on Florida and Texas

Since the beginning of the year US Airways has launched new domestic routes to Daytona Beach, Valparaiso/Fort Walton Beach and Panama City (all of which are in Florida), Austin and San Antonio (both in Texas), Gulfport-Biloxi, Tucson and Sacramento, as well as a daily flight to Montreal in Canada. The seasonal Sacramento service which only started in early June was ended in mid-August though there are conflicting reports as to whether or not the route will be re-instated next summer.

Chart: Top 12 Routes at Charlotte
Source: BTS RITA
Image: Taking off

On these top 12 routes US Airways faces direct competition from Air Tran (Atlanta, Baltimore/Washington), American (Chicago O’Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, LaGuardia), Continental (Newark), Delta (Atlanta, LaGuardia), JetBlue (Boston, Fort Lauderdale), Northwest (Detroit) and United (Chicago O’Hare). Despite this apparently high level of competition no other carrier has more than a 3% share of airport capacity and the majority of the airline’s 130 non-stop routes currently have no direct competition.

The airline’s top routes in terms of capacity are Boston (10,619 weekly departing seats), Philadelphia (10,234), New York LaGuardia (9,887), Orlando (9,478) and Newark (8,614).

Over 20 international destinations are served by US Airways from Charlotte, primarily in Central America and the Caribbean. Long-haul services are limited to Frankfurt and London Gatwick. The airline operates more inter-continental services from its second hub at Philadelphia.

Beach routes in hibernation until November

US Airways has temporarily stopped serving a number of its Caribbean beach routes from the end of August until either early October or early November. From Charlotte these include routes to Antigua, Bridgetown, Belize City, Cozumel, Liberia, St. Kitts and St. Lucia. Apart from Sacramento (possibly) the only apparent route cancellation at present appears to be to Guatemala City where services end this week.

Lack of LCCs keeps air fares well above average

According to US DOT statistics Charlotte airport regularly ranks among the top 20 most expensive airports for passengers in the US. Average fares are typically around 15% higher than the national average when adjusted for sector length.

Period Fare Premium All Markets Fare Premium Short-Haul Fare Premium Long-Haul
2007 Q1 +14 +18 +7
2007 Q2 +17 +22 +9
2007 Q3 +15 +17 +11
2007 Q4 +14.2 +17.5 +8.4
Source: US DOT Office of Aviation Analysis

Given the number of monopoly routes US Airways operates this is no great surprise especially as most of its competition on the major routes comes from legacy carriers. Neither Southwest nor Frontier operates to Charlotte, while AirTran offers just two routes and JetBlue three.


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