United CEO Discusses Whether Cleveland Can Support a Hub, I Remain Skeptical

A favorite pastime in airline mergers is to guess which routes stay and which routes go. When it comes to the United/Continental merger, most of the talk in that arena has focused on little Cleveland. Will it be able to keep a hub in the new combined airline? United CEO Jeff Smisek says it can, but it needs to do more.

Cleveland is really one of the last of a dying breed. Airlines used to pop up hubs throughout the country just because it made sense operationally. Drew Carey Cleveland Unfortunately, that didn’t make it work from an economic perspective. In the last few years, we’ve seen American shut down St Louis, America West walk away from Columbus, US Airways kill Pittsburgh, and Delta slowly drain the life out of Cincinnati. Will Cleveland be next?

Under Continental, it was widely believed that Cleveland was safe because there was no other alternative for the airline in the Midwest. But now with the United hubs of Chicago and Washington/Dulles bracketing the airport, does it still make sense to keep Cleveland around? It all comes down to local traffic.

For a hub to work, you have to have a lot of local traffic, because that’s where the money is made. If you’re flying from Cleveland to New York/LaGuardia, United is the only one in the market, and it can charge a premium for convenience. But if you’re flying from Columbus to LaGuardia via Cleveland, then United is just one of many airlines you can use to connect. United has no pricing power in that market, so it is likely to earn a lower fare. Not only is the fare lower, but the costs are higher since it involves two flights.

So having a base of local traffic is hugely important for a hub, and Cleveland says it has a ton. Then again, Cincinnati says the same thing and claims that Delta is making a mistake by cutting back. That’s apparently not what Delta sees.

The reality is that Cleveland certainly has enough local traffic for markets like New York and Washington, so it’s not going to lose those flights. We’ve seen the same thing in places like Pittsburgh and St Louis. They haven’t lost all service; there has been some to big markets that stuck around. But can Cleveland really support some secondary markets on its own?

That’s what we’ll need to find out. The trick is that while big local traffic is the key for hub success, you still need a fair amount of connecting traffic to help fill the airplanes. Let’s say there are 30 people a day who want to fly from Cleveland to Kansas City. That’s good, but it’s not enough to support a flight by itself. However, if you can take those passengers and then add another 35 people who want to connect to Kansas City from other places, then you’ve got enough to fly a single CRJ-700 and do it profitably (theoretically). So the key is having a good base of local traffic and then filling in the empty seats with connections. That’s what makes a hub work.

Cleveland was the only place for people to connect on Continental in the region, but now it’s different. Let’s say 10 of those passengers connected to Kansas City from Buffalo every day. Now those passengers can connect over O’Hare which will not only have a broader, more frequent schedule but it will also involve larger, jet aircraft. It’s possible that the traffic from the combined United would be enough to sustain Cleveland, especially since O’Hare doesn’t have much room for growth, but that’s going to require more commitment from the community itself to support larger airplanes and more flights.

United CEO Jeff Smisek spoke recently on this very topic.

Asked during a question-and-answer period about what benchmarks a hub needs in order to survive, Smisek said the key was profitability based on “consistent” business travel demand.
“And you haven’t been able to do that,” he said, “and we’ve stuck by you all these years.
“We need to hear from you as to where you see the future growth.

So if Cleveland doesn’t grow, then United won’t grow in Cleveland. And if United can adequately serve its Cleveland connecting customers via other hubs, then things don’t look very good for Cleveland as a hub at all. There will still be a decent-sized operation there, but I still expect to see it shrink to better match local demand.

[Original photo via Flickr user JoeDuck/CC 2.0]

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23 Comments on "United CEO Discusses Whether Cleveland Can Support a Hub, I Remain Skeptical"

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Since the beginning of the merger, it seemed like Cle was going to be closed,
I wish you would have carried that article one step further, WHAT other
Bases will Jeff close…International or Domestic?????????????????????

Zack Rules
Hum, Cleveland already has a relatively small amount of UA hub flights, around 225 daily compared to say Pittsburgh and Cincinnati with around 500 daily during their heyday. Thus, they are starting from a relatively small base. The percentage of O&D passengers is great as well, 73% versus around 10% at Pittsburgh during their peak and around 15% at Cincinnati during their peak. All of those bode well for Cleveland. Next, United should add either a flight to London on a 757-200 (high season) or maybe with a 737-700 (low season, same planes used for SNA-Hawaii). Frankfurt is another thought… Read more »
David SF eastbay

Didn’t I read they agreed to keep CLE for 5 years (or some amount of years) or they would have to pay the city millions to de-hub it? So like AA did to STL, UA will do the same for CLE when that time is up or they see it would be cheaper in the long run for them to pay the millions and reduce CLE service to non-hub status.

CLE will keep good service to hubs and maybe a few other key cities, but it will slowly be reduced in time.


I really think this issue is much ado about nothing; unless you live in Cleveland or are an airline geek.

David SF eastbay

ED – I really think this issue is much ado about nothing; unless you live in Cleveland or are an airline geek.

Very true and that goes for any hub, unless you live in that city or going there for a reason you really don’t care. But you do have to feel bad for all the people who would loose their jobs. Also all the revenue lost to the airport, vendors, etc who service the hub airline and hub connecting passengers. It’s more an impact on the local economy then on anyone not living in that area.


I disagree. Given the choice, I’d much rather connect through CLE than have to deal with ORD!

As Cranky says, ORD is pushing its capacity. Would it not make sense to offload some of that volume if you already have another hub nearby? A second hub also offers some redundancy if ORD gets backed up due to thunderstorms, blizzards, etc.


When you say UA is (present tense) the only carrier between CLE and LGA, you must be speaking about the future and using the merged carrier’s name. At present CO is and has been the dominant carrier operating CLE-LGA, but AA also offers a few token flites to LGA on RJs. And DL offers a few CLE-JFK daily flights.


“The trick is that while big local traffic is the key for hub success”-

Does SLC generate big local traffic for DL – enough to support the frequency to the Northeast, CDG and seasonal NRT? Any idea on the breakdown of local traffic for DL in SLC?

David SF eastbay

UA/CO must plan on keeping IAD around as I see today CO announced they got the ok for Houston-Lagos, Nigeria (NOV2011) and say they are planning IAD-Lagos also.


Lagos sounds good as an oil run from Houston and potential gateway to the African continent.

But Dulles to Lagos just sounds weird to me. Is the NGO/govt aid market that strong, or am I missing something?


IAD-LOS is a tag onto the IAD-ACC service on United. The Dulles hub is mega profitable for United and will continue to expand after the merger is operationally complete. IAD is also the only Northeast airport with room to grow. Other NE airports (PHL, EWR, JFK, BOS etc) are pretty much maxed out.

John Chapin

You say a hub needs lots of local traffic to be profitable. I just flew through Charlotte on US airways on monday. Huge hub… is there really that much local O/D traffic in Charlotte? Or is it an exception to your observation?

Bingo. Cleveland service needs to survive on O/D traffic. It won’t survive or be maintained as a conecting hub (though connections will of course remain possible). And airline doesn’t make money by overflying its own hubs, and Cleveland is too close to other hubs to make any sense for the combined carrier. There’s no reason to maintain the costs and infrastructure for the purpose of competing against and draining away business from O’Hare. Of course the airline isn’t going to announce the end of Cleveland, why do that? But the fact that they’re even publicly skeptical should tell you something.… Read more »

Mayor Jackson and Director Ricky Smith knew of this over 2 years ago, but so as to get Re-Elected and to maintain their jobs they said nothing