US Airways and the Death of the Vegas Hub

It appears that more cuts are coming at the US Airways (formerly America West) Las Vegas hublet. Over the next few months, we’ll see flights to Calgary, Edmonton, Baltimore, and Portland disappear. But the one that really gets me is the end of Vegas to New York/JFK. To me, this officially marks the end of one of the most fun hub operations around, so please excuse me while I get a little nostalgic.

Why is the end of the JFK route so monumental? For years, that was THE route out of Vegas for America West. It was one of the few routes where we actually sold a lot of First Class tickets instead of just filling the cabin with upgrades. The number of New Yorkers that wanted to blow their money in Vegas was astounding, and even the entrance of low-fare disaster National Airlines didn’t spoil the party. I suppose now with American, Delta, jetBlue, and Virgin America flying the route, it just doesn’t make sense.

So, with only around 50 or 60 flights a day (fewer than 10 of them after 9p) to about 20 cities, I think we must now officially call the Vegas hub dead. Let’s take a look back.

The hub started during the 80’s when America West realized that if there was any place where people would fly in the middle of the night, it was Vegas. Before the hub, planes would usually arrive at their destinations around the US in the evening, spend the night, and fly out in the morning again. With the Vegas hub, they could fly those planes into Vegas late night, then fly them back in time for the morning departure. The additional cost of squeezing an extra roundtrip in was minimal, so the hub flourished.

With this plan came some of the strangest people you would ever meet. Traveling through the Vegas hub at midnight was like a walk down the seediest back alley in, well, Vegas. The piercing per person ratio was probably in the double digits, and tattoos were everywhere.

Now take that group of people and cram them into a perennially overcrowded terminal (that always seemed to be under some sort of construction), throw in some clanging slot machines, and you had something that belonged in the seventh circle of hell.

Why would these people subject themselves to such pain? Two reasons. The flight times actually were great for Vegas travel. You could finish work, hop on a plane, and be drunk and broke at O’Sheas by midnight. Oh yeah, and it was cheap. Cheap + Vegas = Lots of passengers.

Certain flights stood out as being the real winners. The Thursday night flights from LA? Lots of strippers. (I think they mostly fly Southwest now.) And of course, there was the flight that was near and dear to every America West employee’s heart. The late night flight home to Phoenix.

Every night for years and years, long after most people were in bed (or at a strip club), America West would shuttle a plane or two from Vegas back to headquarters in Phoenix to prepare for flights the next morning. Sometimes there was one flight, other times there were two. Back in the early 1990s, they even operated this with the massive 747 that was acquired for Hawai’i flying. But one thing was clear: 95% of the people on this plane were America West employees coming home from a long night of drinking and gambling. Man that was fun.

My favorite experience on this flight was when a female gate agent joined me in LA for a UCLA football game. After the game, there were no more nonstops home, so we went to Vegas. And once in Vegas, you might as well have some fun right? I believe that night the last flight home was around 230a, and the flight was packed with employees. You would think that a flight like that, even if it is only 45 minutes, would be full of sleeping people, but no. It was full of employees telling stories about their night. When we landed shortly before 4a, spirits were still high.

That flight was killed a couple years ago, and I think every America West employee was sad to see it go. I have plenty of other stories about my Vegas hub flying. There was the time it took me four flights on four different airlines to get home. Or the time when a bunch of us flew to Mexico City and there were only 5 other people onboard. I can remember early mornings choosing between one of the three flights that all left at 7a to go back to Phoenix. Those were the busy days for that hub, but now it’s gone. The end of the JFK flight really is the end of an era.

29 Responses to US Airways and the Death of the Vegas Hub

  1. Mickey says:

    Well I am a bit surprised to see these routes. But honestly from someone who flies them REGULARLY, I’m not sad to see them go. I’m based in Vegas and the former America West (HP) was a decent airline and the merger did nothing for them. The service has slowly deteriorated since USAirways and I for one will be glad to see them go. I used to hate flying Northwest because of their “service” but the new USAirways has taken the top spot for worst airline when I travel.

  2. Zach says:

    Great post, and I loved hearing your debaucherous tales of yesteryear. It would have been fun to ride on that 747 full of drunk America West employees heading home to Phoenix after an evening in Vegas.

    One thing your post brought back for me was the experience of flying National Airlines. Perhaps their business model made them a disaster, but they were really a pleasure to fly. I started flying them a year or so before they folded, and I was sad when they left the scene. Their nonstops from Midway were cheap and reasonably scheduled, crews were friendly, and every passenger always got a packet of goodies (candies, Mardi Gras beads, pom poms [?!]) presented in an old-school casino coin holder.

    In my opinion, National was underrated and poorly marketed, and it’s a shame that they didn’t last (at the time, I saw National as one of the best kept secrets in the sky).

  3. Artie says:

    When I was a teacher in Baltimore City, I would always (ALWAYS) book the America West flight from BWI to Fresno via either Phoenix or Vegas during my Christmas and Spring break holiday. Why? Because in addition to being cheaper (although one time they were about $50 more expensive), I was about 99% sure they would overbook. Indeed, the first time I ever flew First Class was on America West because I took the “deal” to give up my seat – which included a $400 voucher, free hotel night (might as well, right – I don’t like getting up early) and a first class upgrade on the next flight in the morning.

    The strawberry pancakes for breakfast were always yummy, if a bit rubbery, and I loved that the FAs would always address me by name and were so super friendly! In all, I flew America West through Vegas, FIRST CLASS (for free) three times due to oversold situations. I loved America West and flying through BWI for that reason!

    That being said, one time my plan didn’t work out too well, since my flight got delayed at night and then I missed my connection and ended up spending the night in Vegas, in a line 6 hours long, to get a reconnect through Phoenix and onward to Fresno. But it was Christmas time and everyone was being jolly about it. And it was still worth it. I won $4 on the slot machine :) lol

  4. The Traveling Optimist says:

    Debaucherous Tale – Going Away Party. Dallas to New Orleans. American Airlines. All nighter. Left Sunday, hit Bourbon Street, Hurricanes at Pat O’Brians, bignets in the morning to sop up the suds at Cafe Du Monde in the morning, early AM flight back to Dallas, in the office red-eyed and dragging by 9AM.

    Moved to San Francisco some years later. Repeat story. Only then it was United and the flight was mercifully much longer so we could sleep!

  5. yo says:

    Oh yeah, the last flight to PHX, non rev’d that dozens of times.

    That weird little hell that was LAS late at night.

    Losing JFK is bad, really bad, at least EWR is still there, and maybe we will get LGA non stops.

    Always a love/hate with LAS, all the smoking, noisy machines and tacky tourists, but….they do have a Taco Bell which was always full of pilots loading up. But, Vegas is cyclical, it will come back some days. Vegas used to be fun before it became so corporate and so full of faux “destinations” like Monte Carlo, Paris, NY, and all that other plastic crap.

    I won’t miss it much, but its a bummer to see it cut back so far.

  6. John in DFW says:

    Best way to get to the west coast was to take a DFW-LAS flight with a long connect to LAX. Flights were always cheaper than over PHX and getting to use the slots for a few hours made it worthwhile. Also, one of the best Taco Bells around.

    Now that you have to pay to even have a soda, antique flight attendants with a grudge, and miserable on time performance on the connections, it’s just not worth it anymore. Thank God Southwest can get you to the west coast from Dallas now

  7. JFF says:

    Good stuff. An emotional post for all HP alumni. Remember well being stuck nonrev connecting in LAS the night the power went out. Air stairs being pushed from gate to gate, unloading pax to the ramp. Two planes full of ragged HP emps, open seating, finally left LAS around 5 am. Drove out of PHX Roadrunner lot with the sun shining and Morning Edition already on the radio. Perfect hell.

  8. Rory says:

    Ah memories… Back when America West operated codeshare for BA, I connected to a late LAX-LAS sector after a long trip from Edinburgh via LHR. As you say, the characters on the flight were amusing.

  9. Brian Lusk says:

    CF
    Fantastic post, and your description of the seventh-ring of hell probably fits all red-eye flying. I never experienced the HP LAS hub, but I would match it with the old ATL terminal at 6am when every budget traveler from the south and west were trundling through the complex connecting to flights up and down the East Coast. There weren’t a lot of tatoos and probably a fewer number of “party girls” but the crowds were so thick they divided the halls into lanes like roadways (complete with yellow lane markers.)
    BL

  10. Randy says:

    Late night debauchery stories. Hmmm, my top memory at United non-revving, Dulles to Paris Friday night at 9:30PM, seven employees in first class, no revenue passengers on a 777-200. We treated it like a bar standing up and chatting with the Flight Attendants across the Atlantic, sitting primarily to eat dinner. When business class asked us to keep it down just a tad, my first thought which I couldn’t voice as a non-rev, “Don’t we outrank them?” Slept all day in Paris, hung out all night with all the city of lights has to offer, and then catch the 5PM on Sunday back to Dulles. To be honest I have no memory of the flight home, probably slept the entire way. Vegas is high volume low yield market, which one would think USAirways/HP would still chase, but it doesn’t seem that US has really turned into a truly low fare carrier. One look at a Washington to Providence fare told me that. WN was $105 for walk-up on a 737 to PVD, while USAirways had an RJ from National for $465 one way. Fortunately a friend got me a buddy pass for $27 or I would have driven to Baltimore. The US RJ left with six revenue passengers on it, what a waste of a slot from DCA. With a strategy such as that letting even a gold mine like National atrophy, it doesn’t surprise me to see Vegas left out to whither on the vine. Don’t even get me started on how many RJ’s they operate out of LGA, with mainline aircraft only to hubs and on Shuttle Routes.

  11. PF says:

    Midnight hub – Eastern did it years ago – primarily to move freight. Most passengers were students with back packs. EA charged for checked bags, (so it’s not something new last year). I don’t remember where the EA Hub was – perhaps Chicago but it’s been too long….

  12. US228 was my best friend. LAS-ORD red-eye. I’ve been on that flight so many times. The LAS hub was so unique.

    LAS-PHX was also the route where, at times, you would see two or three US flights within minutes of each other. Sometimes people would moan about being at the wrong gate for the flight to PHX that leaves in 32 minutes instead of 30. “-Sorry, wrong gate ma’am! -Yes, but this is to PHX, where I am going to” -You’re on the other PHX flight, next door” =)

    -Kinglobjaw

  13. The Traveling Optimist says:

    The EA Midnight Hub was in Houston. And I remember the original Frontier after it was bought up by People Express also charging for checked luggage…$3 per piece, I think $9 for interline or something like that. And I also remember the “legacy” carriers scoffing at the low-class audacity of it all…..something I think only Southwest is still doing?

  14. Q, CEO says:

    CF, this is the best post you have ever written. Please relay more nostalgic posts at your convenience.

  15. Zack Rules says:

    Cranky
    B6 has added Salt Lake and Burbank from Las Vegas in recent months. Do you think they’ll back fill some of US Airways’s capacity cuts to some of their existing destinations? Also, what do you think B6’s response to WN’s Boston entry will be? More Florida, LAS and a PHX flights?

  16. CF says:

    Zack – I would be surprised to see them backfill much in Vegas. US Airways is pulling out because it’s a really tough market in which to make money. I don’t think jetBlue will feel the need to jump in any further, but I could be wrong.

    As for Southwest in Boston, let’s carry that one over until tomorrow’s post. (Though I think it’s way to early to know their reaction since we don’t know any details from Southwest yet.)

  17. DC says:

    Great post, Cranky.

    Randy – absolutely right about US not being a low fare carrier, at least out of DCA. They do the same things on upstate NY flights. I’d gladly pay $100 extra or so RT for the convenience of DCA, but most of the times US wants far more than that, especially with little advance purchase and often on small planes. So I make the trip to BWI for the convenience of 8 flights a day, no small planes, no charge for luggage, and reasonable change fees. I don’t have data, but I suspect they are giving away potential profits to WN with their nasty pricing strategy.

  18. Daren S says:

    I flew that route on my first and only trip to LAS. I was so pleased to get the hell of the place I couldn’t have cared who I flew with!

  19. Shannon G says:

    Former US/HP emp here. I recall taking the”non-rev express” LAS back to PHX on Sunday night/Monday morning on good ol’ 908 (757 from he!!) Knowing all the sounds that it should make(and not make) We took off and it took forever for the flaps to be pulled up and the gear had to be cycled about 3 times before they went up. When we got to PHX the thrust reversers didn’t work and we landed to the east as short as possible( a few feet short of 24th Street) and rolled all the way down to the end of the runway(Southwest hangar!) Needless to say, 908 was in the hangar the next morning. You’ve never seen so many white knuckles on a plane full of non-revs.
    Ah… memories.

    PS-Just flew US PHX-SEA RT for the first time in about a year The 319’s didn’t have A/V anymore and all Fleather seats. The F/A’s have to work on those now don’t they?

  20. Tom S says:

    Oh, those Tuesday early evening PHX-LAS flights. It gave you about 3.5 good hours of drinking, buffets, and gambling. It is stuff of HP legend. The LAS-PHX flight at midnight (or 1 am, or 2 am, depending on the delay that day), was great. HP employees just waiting around impatiently while the gate agents started calling off 4-5 names at a time. Great times with some great people. I also remember the morning after…..with half of the department just dragging a$$ because they didn’t get home until 3 am, and were working off a hangover with maybe 4 hours of sleep.

    All in all, the most touching post I have ever read on this site.

  21. Ari says:

    Great post!

  22. yo says:

    I was on the very first PHX-LAS 747 flight going PHX-LAS-HNL. It was 2nd day of service for the 747. What a mess! By the time the attendants got up and served half the plane, we were on final. Strange flight, did it a few times, back then, the FA’s would fill an air sickness bag with mini alcohol bottles (liquor was free) for non-rev’s to get you a good start on Vegas. Of course, if you then went on to HNL, you had to deplane, and hope like hell you made the flight, because in LAS, non reving was subject to “Vegas Rules”.

    From the 747 to the Dash 8 LAS-GCN-FLG-PHX, those were the days, and I’m glad I was a part of it.

  23. Jordan W says:

    Wow, talk about tales from another lifetime…..haha. I worked for HP back in the mid 90s…and probably non rev’d on them at least 80-100 times, during my short 6 month stint with them!.. I was always heading off somewhere. LAS. The seventh circle of hell!… Yes, well at midnight for sure. Lunchtime was more depressing…. Too many fun stories. LAX-LAS Always a quick fun flight. LAS-PHX midnights.. I always slept. Im not surprised that they (US) has dropped JFK. US Airways needs to just die. It should have been shot back in the late 80s, early 90s. And how can I ever forget my LAS-CMH overnight. We were heading from LA – MIA, via las, cmh and ewr. They had a drinks trolley left over from an earlier flight. We had First to ourselves. We stripped the booze cart bare …with permission from the FA’s. By the time we landed in CMH. We could barely crawl off the plane. How they let us on for EWR, beats me. Lets just say. We were in noooo fit state to continue on MIA, and headed into Manhattan to get a hotel. Still a great trip!

    From 95-2000. I was a top tier frequent flyler with HP. And I use to fly the JFK-LAS route alot in F Class. Always an amazingly good flight. Fond memories. And one of my all time domestic favs. LAS-JFK. I walk onboard, and sitting in 2A is some over the top, fur and diamond clad lady. So Im like “oh god” Im gonna just sleep. She puts her kids in 3AB to sleep….and we end up chatting the whole flight. She tells me stories about Russia and her travels…amazing!!!

    To end on a low note, that I can now laugh about. My JFK-LAS flight one pre christmas day was delayed. (Dec 22 2000) By the time I made it into LAS…my connection to LAX was in shambles. Alot of confusion, and whatnot, so I sauntered over to the gate 2 hours later, cause Im told the flight is still 2 hours away. Low and Behold. My LAX flight is boarding. So I rush down the jetbridge…and the biggest gate agent bitch of all time greets me. Snatches my boarding pass…and tells me to take any open seat in coach. My hands were full of teddy bears (In large bags) that I was taking onwards to London after LA, so I wanted the overhead space in First. Coach was packed. I told the gate agent that I had a confirmed seat in F, any other time, I would have just gone back into Coach, but that was not gonna work this time.

    She went nuts, and started screaming at me. Even though my boarding pass denotes I was a tope level HP customer.

    For the second time in my life, I had an out of body expereince, and completely lost it. We were screaming at each other for 10 minutes. Everyone in the open 757 coach cabin fell silent… Flight attendant “chris” came out, recognized me, pulled me onto the plane gently (no joke). I was always on her flights for some reason, and totally took care of me.

    I noticed she was removing a non rev out of 1B for me. I stopped her and said no. Just accomodate my bags in the overheads of First and Ill go into coach. NOTHING is worse than being a non-rev; being removed from First!. I remembered those days, and would not allow it! As I turned to store my bags and head to the back……

    Turns out, First was not full.. The lady in seat 2B had placed her handbag on 2A, and the dumb gate agent wrote it off as it being occupied by a person! hmmmm! Great seat counting job!

    During the flight, I went into the gallery and chatted with Chris for about 5 minutes. Apologizing for my outburst. She was so cool. Back in those days. HP gave their premier flyers 6 coupons to give out to HP employees, when they had gone above and beyond. One Coupon, would redeem into Tumi luggage or a trip to Hawaii. Pretty huge gifts. i had 4 left. It was the end of the year, since I was flying Virgin out of LA. I thanked Chris for all her great service over the few years..and gave her all 4!

    Never flew HP again after that flight come to think of it. Switched my FF to CO…and used the 30,000 miles HP sent me as an apology on CO!

    Anyho. Still fond memories of HP :)

  24. Jordan W says:

    One more thing. HP was a special airline. Like no other in US History! Having worked for AA, UL and SN prior. I can say this without a doubt!

    I missed out the aborted landing at PHX. Gosh. Im sure there are millions of stories we can tell.

    How fun to share on here. Thanks

  25. Eric says:

    ROTFL…the ‘crew hauler’ to PHX….man what a circus! Tracking down 83 nonrevs who are at the bar keeping their buzz up or playing slots to recoup their losses lol.

    On a larger scale, the death of LAS is pretty epic. When you have to close half the airport to keep costs under control….that says something.

  26. Robert S says:

    Ah, the late night HP LAS experience. It was at its craziest when they were running 747s LAS-JFK. And overbook heaven (or hell). I remember a guy who was bumped off a late night departure; he kicked a jetway door in anger, shattered the glass, then was led away by cops a few minutes later.

  27. Josh says:

    This really doesn’t come as much of a surprise. JFK lost more money than only four of the 29 destinations offered mainline from LAS. The loss of almost $7 million on the segment in 2008Q3 accounted for about 5% of US’s mainline losses at LAS. Three of the other four cities were US hubs. Those hubs contributed a combined loss of $46.5 million; about 33.1% of the hub’s losses. In case you’re wondering, the mystery fourth city is BOS…. which I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get the axe either. PDX and CMH shared the award for worst route by margin PDX and BWI each lost about $5 million on their respective segments. These are particularly poor performers, but US didn’t make a dime on one mainline segment out of LAS in Q3…. the very best route by margin, LAS-LAX – had a margin of -25.67%!

  28. Beads says:

    Their nonstops from Midway were cheap and reasonably scheduled, crews were friendly, and every passenger always got a packet of goodies (candies, Mardi Gras beads, pom poms) presented in an old-school casino coin holder.

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