Delta’s Growth in Washington Smells Fishy

Delta announced a big increase in flights in New York and Washington this week, and I’m having trouble figuring out how they’re making this happen. Something doesn’t smell quite right, especially in Washington, but I can’t get a straight answer on this. One thing does seem to be clear. The slot Delta Washington Monumentswap would have been better for the consumer.

Delta is adding flights in New York, but that’s not a surprise. It’s the increase at Washington/National that has me perplexed. As we all know by now, Delta and US Airways were trying to arrange a slot swap where Delta would give most of its slots to US Airways at National in exchange for US Airways slots at LaGuardia. That was shot down, and now the airlines are fighting the feds in court for permission. You would think that Delta would stick with the status quo pending the court outcome (even if it is a long way away), but that’s not the case. Delta will be adding 27 daily flights to nine cities from National while only killing off service to one city.

Which cities? Here’s the list:

Destination From National Daily Frequency Change
Boston 7 -> 12x
Columbus 0 -> 3x
Hartford 0 -> 3x
Huntsville 2x -> 0
Indianapolis 2 -> 3x
Jacksonville 0 -> 3x
Orlando 0 -> 4x
Miami 0 -> 2x
St Louis 0 -> 3x
Tampa 0 -> 2x

All these changes happen on October 31, but where the heck is the net increase of 25 slots coming from each way? Delta is, as usual, being tight-lipped about the whole thing, but I did get spokesperson Trebor Banstetter to say:

Our slot portfolio at [National] includes slots that had been subleased to other airlines and are now available for Delta’s use, which is how we’re able to add the additional flights without making reductions other than [Huntsville].

Hmm, the plot thickens. Now, who would have been leasing a big chunk of slots from Delta? Trebor wouldn’t tell me, but come on. How many options are there? I mean, it has to be US Airways, right? Nobody else has that big of a chunk of slots that it would be able to hand back and still maintain a viable operation. Delta must have had these slots leased out to US Airways on a longer term deal, and now Delta wants them back. That’s very interesting if true. It means that besides not getting the rest of Delta’s slots that it was giving away in the deal, US Airways may have lost even more slots than that.

This gets even more interesting when looking at planned service changes. I tried to see if US Airways was cutting flights, and I found some. US Airways had previously said that it would begin flying from National to Ottawa, Montreal, Tallahassee, and Birmingham in October. I no longer see those anywhere in the schedule. That would account for some of the slots. I find myself wondering where the rest are coming from.

The strange thing is that these flights were announced fairly recently. So either US Airways was counting on the slot swap going through or it was expecting to be able to use the existing leased slots for that purpose. But US Airways isn’t talking about this either. I suppose I’m not surprised. It probably wouldn’t be something that US Airways would want to publicize. Delta’s the one who blew this up into a big announcement.

One thing that does seem clear is that by killing the slot swap, the feds have made things worse for Washington fliers. No low cost carriers are coming in to the market (other than JetBlue via its separate American swap), and instead, Delta is just putting slots on competitive routes.

Delta is not starting service on any routes that are unserved today. These all at least have one nonstop airline and some have two or even three without Delta in the mix. Most of the routes overlap with US Airways. It’s almost as if Delta is now trying to pick a fight. Meanwhile, cities like Tallahassee and Birmingham will continue to only have connections now that US Airways seems to have pulled the flights. Those towns must be really angry.

There’s still a lot more to this story. What is the deal with these leases? Why is Delta now somehow thinking that it’ll be a big player in Washington? What’s the end game? Could this just be a political ploy to add service to key senatorial markets? I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface on this one.

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