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.

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