Almost 80% of US domestic routes are a monopoly; either of United’s possible mergers would have little effect on domestic competition

From a route planning perspective, a United+US Airways merger causes strains in the way the American airline model traditionally competes: There is only a tiny overlap of routes – instead the system is dominated by competing hubs. So while the merger would create a powerful force, it would also present a bigger target for Southwest, the ‘grandfather’ of low cost carriers with its contrasting concentration on point-to-point services.

As the US airline industry watches with keen anticipation to see what emerges from the on-going discussions between United and its potential partners, Continental and US Airways, this week takes an analytical look at just how competitive US domestic routes really are.

Based on OAG schedule data for the third week in April, there are around 2,800 different non-stop airport-pair routes operated purely within the USA of which around 78% are provided by just a single carrier. The leading nine carriers (AirTran, Alaska Airlines, American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United and US Airways) account for 93.5% of domestic seat capacity with Frontier in tenth place (1.6%), just half the size of JetBlue in ninth. A further 58 airlines including Allegiant, Hawaiian, Midwest, Spirit and Virgin America provide the remaining 5% of capacity.

Since nine carriers account for such a high proportion of total domestic capacity, the remaining analysis will focus on just these carriers and the routes they operate. These carriers (the US Domestic 9 – or USD9 for short) operate 2,260 routes between them with again around 78% operated as a monopoly (ignoring the capacity provided by the other 59 carriers).

Las Vegas – Los Angeles is most competitive route with five carriers

Looking only at the USD9 carriers just a single route (Las Vegas to Los Angeles) is served by five of them. A further five routes are operated by four of the USD9 carriers. Los Angeles is involved in four of these top six most competitive routes, New York JFK twice and Hawaii twice.

# Route Airlines (weekly frequencies)
5 Los Angeles – Las Vegas Southwest (82), US Airways (35), United (31), Delta (28), American (21)
4 Los Angeles – Honolulu American (28), United (22), Delta (21), Continental (14)
4 Washington IAD – Orlando United (35), JetBlue (14), Southwest (14), AirTran (7)
4 Los Angeles – New York JFK American (69), Delta (46), United (41), JetBlue (14)
4 San Francisco – New York JFK United (48), American (35), Delta (33), JetBlue (13)
4 Los Angeles – Kahului United (19), American (14), Delta (14), Continental (7)
Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 12 April 2010

It is worth noting that Hawaiian Airlines also operates between Los Angeles and Honolulu, while Virgin America connects New York JFK with both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

73 routes served by three of the USD9

A further 73 routes are served by three of the USD9 carriers, with 23 different permutations of carrier competition. The most common trio of carriers competing head-to-head are American, Delta and United (on 11 routes including Atlanta-Chicago and Los Angeles-Orlando) followed by American, Delta and JetBlue (on 10 routes from New York JFK).

US domestic tri-opoly routes Leading combinations and number of routes

Source: OAG Max Online for w/c 12 April 2010

413 duopoly routes

Around 18% of non-stop air routes operated by the USD9 carriers are served by two carriers. That’s just over 400 routes in all. The matrix below summarises on how many routes each of the possible permutation of airlines compete head-to-head.  The airlines that bump into each other most are American and United, which comes as no great surprise given that they share a hub at Chicago O’Hare.

United is part of a duopoly on 143 routes (it also shares 36 routes with Southwest), while Southwest (139 routes) and Delta (138 routes) also have plenty of duopoly routes. Continental, with just 52 duopoly routes, manages to avoid competition better than its rivals, taking into account the total size of the networks operated by the airlines.

Potential partners United and Continental compete as a duopoly on just eight routes while United and US Airways go head-to-head on just four routes (Washington Dulles – Charlotte, Las Vegas – Fresno, Los Angeles – Philadelphia and San Francisco – Philadelphia).


Seen this table anywhere else? How the US airlines don’t overlap – just four routes in the case of US Airways-United, and eight for a United-Continental pairing.

All of this analysis is looking at purely point-to-point traffic. Of course, many US domestic passengers have to make one or more stops to get to where they want to go as no non-stop service may exist for their planned flight. This means that they often have a choice of connecting hub for their journey. When no non-stop service exists the way in which passengers will choose between competing one-stop services will be down to a range of criteria including cost, schedule quality, airline reputation, total journey time (including connection time), facilities and reputation of connecting airport and frequent flier programme membership.


  1. Doesn’t this complete ignore the city pair dynamic? For example the LAX-JFK route only has four of the majors whereas LAX-NYC (including Newark and La-Guardia) has six of the majors competing. While I do not know exactly how much of this impact is there on the rest of the network, I suspect the competition is definitely more intense in destinations with secondary/alternate airports.

  2. Aaron Robinson says:

    While airport-pairs or city-pairs certainly present an easy way of looking at data, it obscures the real factor of interest: what matters is not routes but passengers traveling on those routes. 80% of the routes may be monopolies, but 80% of passengers do not face monopolies for nonstop travel.

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