The Big6 US ‘legacy’ airlines; is this as big as their networks will ever be?

Images: A resilient economy

As the summer 2008 season draws to a close this is an ideal time to analyse the networks of the Big6 major US ‘legacy’ carriers (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways) before the major capacity cutbacks previously announced by many of these airlines comes into effect. With over 15% of the domestic market (in terms of passengers) Southwest may be the leading US airline but as was noted last week in our global review of LCCs it only operates from 64 (soon to be 65) airports. This is in sharp contrast to the Big6, all of which operate from over 100 US airports, even if it is through partnerships with smaller regional airlines or subsidiaries.

Chart: No. of airports served
Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 6 October 2008

Analysis of current schedules reveals that Delta serves more US airports than any other carrier, just ahead of its new partner Northwest. All of the Big6 are present at between 130 and 200 US airports. All of these carriers also serve many international destinations (which Southwest as yet does not). Here Continental leads the way with 130 foreign destinations, well ahead of American and Delta. The other three carriers all serve less than 50 non-US airports.

Delta and American operate more than 500 routes

Five of the Big6 operate between 350 and 400 non-stop domestic airport-pairs with only Continental falling well below this figure. Southwest, despite operating from far fewer US airports actually operates 434 point-to-point services. Average frequency on domestic routes is between 26 and 30 (around four daily departures) for all carriers, except Northwest whose average daily frequency is around three daily departures.

Chart: No. of routes operated
Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 6 October 2008

American, Continental and Delta all operate over 100 international routes. When domestic and international routes are combined all of the Big6 end up with between 400 and 550 non-stop airport-pairs with Delta marginally beating American.

Each carrier has different focus in foreign markets

A closer examination of how each airline allocates capacity to different market segments reveals that in capacity terms (measured by total seats as opposed to ASKs) each of the six is still heavily reliant on the US domestic market. US Airways allocates 92% of its seat capacity to domestic routes while Continental has the highest proportion assigned to non-US routes at 24%. It assigns a higher proportion of its capacity to Mexican routes (thanks to its Houston base) and to European routes (thanks to its Newark base) than any other US carrier.

Chart: Capacity share by geographic region
Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 6 October 2008

United allocates a higher share of its capacity than any other airline to Canadian routes and on Asia-Pacific routes. The location of its hub at San Francisco is useful for the trans-Pacific routes while Canadian routes are operated from Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and Washington Dulles.

American is strong in Latin America and the Caribbean thanks to its base in Miami and serves the Mexican market well from its Dallas/Fort Worth base. Delta meanwhile is not particularly strong in any overseas market though half of its non-US capacity is allocated on European routes which it operates mainly from Atlanta and New York JFK. However, it does have the biggest presence in the Middle East and Africa thanks to routes to Egypt, Ghana, Israel, Jordan, Nigeria, Senegal and the UAE.

Northwest, not surprisingly given the location of its main bases in Detroit and Minneapolis, is not well represented in Mexico or Latin America in general.
However, thanks to its strong Japanese network from seven different US airports it is strong in Asia. Many of these Japanese services then travel on to other Asian destinations resulting in the airline having over 5% of its seat capacity allocated to intra-regional routes, those that take place entirely outside of the US.

It will be fascinating to see how the network landscape changes for these carriers in the next 12 months. At we will continue to monitor and report on these changes as and when they occur. To see which routes have already been dropped, or will be soon, check out’s unique downloadable Route Recycle Bin.


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