Breaking Down Delta’s Memphis Hub

I wasn’t aware that Politifact had expanded its truth-seeking service beyond politics, but sure enough, it has turned its spotlight on Delta. Aviation Week’s Andy Compart points to a release from Politifact questioning whether Delta has broken promises in Memphis. Delta originally said it would keep the Amsterdam service and that Memphis might actually grow. Neither of those things have happened, and Politifact calls the airline out.

Instead, Delta has cut Memphis service dramatically. While there were over 225 daily departures from Memphis before the merger, that has now shrunk to a mere 94 daily weekday departures this winter. Certainly seems like a broken promise to me, though clearly one that could have been foreseen. One thing is clear; this should make the Delta Does Memphis Facebook group happy. They love to hate Delta for its high fares in the market. These latest cuts should open the door even further for someone like Southwest to come in and bring fares down. I consider this to be the dying days of the Delta hub in Memphis.

But with 94 daily flights, this seemed like a great opportunity to break down the hub operation to explain how Delta has it set up. For those who are interested, this is a very easy and interesting way to see how a hub works operationally. Here’s a day in the life of Memphis.

Breaking Down the Hub

As usual, I picked a random Wednesday, February 6, to highlight how the hub runs. On that day, Delta has 28 mainline departures (5 A319s, 8 A320s, 2 737s, 1 DC-9, 11 MD-80s, and 1 MD-90). In addition, there are 66 regional departures (44 CRJs, 5 ERJs, 3 E-175s, and 14 CRJ-900s). Except for flights to other hubs, these all operate within three banks each day. There are 10 airplanes that sit in Memphis overnight (1 A319, 4 A320s, 1 737, 1 MD-88, 1 CRJ, and 2 CRJ-900s). Because of that, we see more flights arriving than departing in the night bank and the reverse in the morning.

The first two departures from Memphis aren’t part of the hub. Instead, they are both flights from Memphis to Atlanta at 6a and 715a so that people in Memphis can connect into the Atlanta hub. (These flights would operate even if Memphis wasn’t a hub.) But then, the first bank begins with a 714a arrival from LAX. Between then and 809a, 25 different flights come in from these cities:

Delta Memphis Morning Arrival Bank

After everyone gets off, they scurry to their next gate and then from 825a to 9a, 32 flights leave Memphis. That’s 24 of the 25 airplanes that came in earlier plus the 8 remaining airplanes that stayed overnight. (Remember, the other two overnighting airplanes left for Atlanta before the bank.) The one 737 that came in from LA on the redeye sits in Memphis until the next bank of flights in the early afternoon.

Delta Memphis Morning Departure Bank

After 9a, there are two airplanes that come in from Atlanta and one that comes in from Detroit. All three turn right around and are simply there to bring Memphis travelers to those hubs for their banks. Then, the second bank in Memphis starts with the first of 29 arrivals from Philly at 1226p and continues until the Denver flight arrives at 153p.

Delta Memphis Afternoon Arrivals Bank

Those 29 airplanes turn around along with that one 737 that came in earlier to make 30 flights out starting at 108p to Philly and ending with the 240p to Ft Lauderdale.

Delta Memphis Afternoon Departure Bank

After that, we have more flights to and from the other hubs. There are two more from Atlanta, another one from Detroit, and one from Minneapolis. All turn around except for the Minneapolis one which goes on to feed the Salt Lake hub.

At that point, the biggest arrival bank begins at 540p with the afternoon arrival from LA. There are 30 arrivals with the last one getting in at 7p from Orlando.

Delta Memphis Evening Arrival Bank

These turn around into only 23 departures starting at 635p to Atlanta and ending at 745p with a flight to Louisville.

Delta Memphis Evening Departure Bank

That 745p departure to Louisville is the last one of the night for Delta, but there are three more arrivals from other hubs. Two come from Atlanta and one comes from Salt Lake. That Salt Lake arrival at 1028p is the last one of the day and the 10 airplanes on the ground stay overnight until the next day starts things up all over again.

Hub Changes
So what changed in this last cut? Delta keeps cutting around the more marginal markets. Jacksonville and Birmingham lose Memphis service entirely. A host of other cities either go from 3 to 2 flights daily or from 2 to 1. They weren’t all from one bank but rather spread out throughout the day.

While you might not think this makes a big difference in the hub, it might. What if an average of two people on every flight from Birmingham were connecting to Louisville? With the Birmingham flights gone, it may make the Louisville flights look worse. And then eventually, Louisville may get cut as well.

That means only the strongest markets with local traffic can survive. Outside the hubs, that means cities like Washington/National and Boston probably have the best shot at hanging around. I would think we’ll eventually see flights to mid-tier cities like Jackson (MS) and Des Moines go away in the next round.

Back when Delta and Northwest announced their merger in 2008, I said in a post, “By the time they’re done with Memphis and Cincinnati, they might look more like Indianapolis.” That day may not be that far away.

Right now, Indianapolis has 37 flights per day in the winter to all Delta hubs plus Boston. It also has seasonal service to LA. Granted, Memphis has much lower operating costs than Indianapolis so I imagine it will also remain somewhat bigger for Delta, but we’re not that far away from these being very similar operations, especially compared to where we started.

[Maps via Great Circle Mapper]


42 Responses to Breaking Down Delta’s Memphis Hub

  1. SEAN says:

    Isn’t this what officials in MSP were worried about if Delta baught Northwest? As I recall in order for local polititions to sign off on the deal, Delta had to keep both several hundred corporate jobs in the Minneapolis area & a high percentage of flights comperable to what Northwest opperated premerger.

    • JDH says:

      Delta had to keep that until they paid off a loan that Northwest owed. That was paid off and Delta has cut in Minneapolis onn both flights and HQ jobs.

  2. sjc user says:

    I was surprised to see JAX go since DL has a pretty sizable operation at JAX.

  3. Cranky, you need to stop picking Wednesdays as most airlines – especially Delta – cut service on Tue/Wed/Sat. A Monday or Friday would better days to look at.

    • Andrew says:

      I agree–Wednesday’s seem like the slowest day of the week, anecdotally. I think you chose a Wednesday as well for your look at WN in ATL last week. Not that it ultimately matters in the long run, I think it may just slightly exaggerate the current numbers. Would be interested to how the 94 departures compare to a Thursday, for example.

    • CF says:

      There is ZERO difference between Monday and Wednesday here when it comes to frequency. You want Mondays? Next time I’ll give you a Monday but it wouldn’t have made a different at all in this case.

      • Andrew says:

        In this case there isn’t, but in other scenarios there might be. As someone who lives in CLT, there are a number of flights that don’t operate in the 10pm bank on Tuesday nights, but do on Thursday night, for example.

  4. Nice research, but those banks had my head spinning.

    The way DL is treating MEM does seem odd as anytime you read something about it, you hear because it’s close to ATL. Well not really, but it can be used for a number of connections from the west to cities in the southeast with out using ATL, but I guess DL doesn’t think so. I’ve always hated when you have to fly past your destination to connect then then have to double back.

    But reducing MEM means having to use ATL more which give DL a stronger hold to fight off other carriers there. It’s really CVG that isn’t needed with MSP/DTW in the same area to connect traffic.

    Who knows maybe DL is just doing this to force Memphis (city and airport) to start tossing ‘treats’ to reduce DL costs and entice them to stay and built up service again.

    • I’m not trying to be on anyone’s side, but just play devil’s advocate here…

      I agree that the merger created “synergies” and overlap that in the form of redundant hubs/flights (which ironically is the “cost savings” associated with merging, even though the airlines publicly say they won’t cut hubs…I mean, who are we kidding, does the overlap of a hundred corporate jobs really justify hundreds of millions of dollars of potential savings? but I digress…)

      What is not mentioned here or by anyone else is that the air market has changed. Between a recession and higher fuel and operating costs, some of these flights might have been cut even without a merger! How long is DL expected to keep this promise (and run unprofitably)? A predominantly RJ-hub is just not going to be profitable in 2012

      I would also like to see a number of seats in the market comparison as opposed to daily departures. The industry trend over the last few years has been to move to larger jets, which may temper some of the cuts that we see in MEM.

    • tharanga says:

      I don’t know. Looking at the maps of today’s service, I don’t see a ton of connections where MEM is clearly ideal. There are a few, sure, and I guess we’ll see if that’s enough to keep it going.

      I didn’t realize it until looking at these maps, but I guess AA’s DFW hub is competing for some of those connections.

  5. Ron says:

    Nice post. I was recently wondering why the LAX red-eye left so late (1:40 am), and this post points out the obvious — there are no earlier connections out of Memphis. Then again, it was the same with Northwest back in the day, so I guess the timing of the morning bank hasn’t changed?

    Also, the arrivals and departures within each bank have some overlap, so I’m guessing there’s some structure to each bank in order to allow people to make the more likely connections (e.g. west to east before east to west). Right?

    • CF says:

      Ron – Yeah, I would assume that Delta is building the banks to connect the flights that feed the most passengers on to other flights. So not everything connects in each bank.

  6. Tom says:

    “Breaking down” is a good way to describe the Memphis hub. I’m a long-time Delta flyer and supporter, but they’re really taking it on the chin in Memphis right now in terms of PR. I miss the good old days when NWA was the high-priced hub airline and Delta was a bargain for anyone willing to fly through Atlanta. With these cuts we’re getting increasingly less convenient service but are still ridiculously expensive (and AA, United, US Airways, and Airtran are just price-matching since capacity is so high). Hopefully Delta will de-hub entirely, let someone else step in, and people like me can get back to flying cheaply through Atlanta again.

  7. “Delta originally said it would keep the Amsterdam service and that Memphis might actually grow.”

    How long do people expect DL to keep its “promise” (which sounds less like a promise and more like merger-speak anyways)? It’s been 4.5 years since the merger was announced. I’d say any commitment they made back then has long since expired.

  8. I think the other thing cities have to be aware of is casting off their “golden egg”. I understand and agree with the frustrations of MEM residents. But, Memphis has outsized service for its o/d market. If competitors step in too much, destinations and frequencies will be cut by DL, but not necessarily replaced. The city might be “right sized” which could be argued as positive or negative depending on perspective. Some markets would get cheaper and better service, but as you said, Cranky, in your fictitious example, removing potential connectors makes other routes look bad, which leads to a bad cycle.

    Bringing in WN, B6, or NK would likely lead to fewer destinations, lower frequencies. Only WN might be able to offer a large network (via a connection) and likely enough variation in flights or destinations. But without RJs, even lower prices may not be enough to stimulate demand for over 100 people to fly each of these routes. And what would that do to other routes?

    I wonder if there is any markets out there that have had this competition-induced dying occur. I might have said PHL, but US seems to have battled back WN, maybe WN in STL, but they now run a large operation there. DEN?

    • CF says:

      Noah – You can point to Baltimore as a competition-induced dying for US Airways but Baltimore has become a powerhouse for Southwest with great service. Memphis definitely won’t look like Baltimore for Southwest.

  9. Kerwin says:

    Nice maps :-).
    Looks folks, its a business, the goal is to make money. You can’t run the planes on air.

    • Tom says:

      Yep.
      Much of the vitriole here in Memphis is misplaced. Not sure why anyone expects Delta to act against its own best interests. It is, as you point out, a business. It’s a shame to see MEM turn into another CVG, but if I were planning Delta’s routes I’d probably make the same calls.

  10. Gary E says:

    Just look at MKE to see the future of MEM

  11. B757capt says:

    I remember flying on a 727-200 from ORD-MEM in the mid 1990s. It was the middle of January and Memphis got hit with a killer snow storm. We waited off runway for the gate over 2 hours.

    Once at the gate we ran to our Cancun flight that was indefinitely delayed. I will never forget eating BBQ pulled pork watching the snow coat the red tailed A320s. I think this was about the time I fell in love with aviation.

    So sad to see these hubs of the past disappear.

  12. There just isn’t enough o&d traffic to justify a MEM hub for Delta. It is especially low in highly sought after business travel. It is a shame because there is a sense of pride and excitement that comes from having a “hub” airport. It is a by-product of the local economy, but also helps drive it. As mentioned previously, BWI is my home airport and the Southwest terminal is routinely crowded (but not annoyingly so) with non stops to almost every major region in the country. I often fly to CMH and the exact opposite is true: a tired, ‘dead’ atmosphere. I feel for MEM because it is often harder to have something and lose it than to have never have had it all.

  13. Sanjeev M says:

    iirc, CVG 3 bank structure is pretty similar. aircraft RON on the east coast, get to cvg at 8:30am and continue west. There’s a secondary Midwest bank around 1pm, and of course the late 7pm bank to the east. Although each of the banks have about 50 flts instead of 30 at Memphis, including the CDG flt.

  14. Gary says:

    There isn’t “much o&d traffic in Memphis because of the high air fares…the second highest air fares in the nation that send thousands of Memphians to Nashville or Little Rock. We’re fighting back…check out the latest campaign: Runwayrobbery.org

    • I doubt this whole runway robbery thing is going to go anywhere, if Delta could make money flying from Memphis they would.

      If the fares are so high and another airline could make money in Memphis they’d also have moved in.. So Memphis just will have to get used to being a big spoke that connects to a few too many places..

      • agreed–whats the endgame?

        Airlines tend to have more opportunities than dollars! (see Jetblue and Spirit–they could be profitable in 30 more markets tomorrow, but due to wall street, ROIC, and ramp-up time, they dont)

        Option 1: DL stays and is pissed at the local market knowing that they will be held hostage for every fare increase –> they would chose to put their metal and investment in other markets.

        Option 2: Every other competitor is afraid to move in because they know the locals will give them trouble in the future if they try and create a profitable fare structure. It’s not like MEM is a huge growing opportunity with a crazy bright future. They would argue that the growth and investment phase isn’t worth it when they could go into other mid-tier markets –> not enter/grow market

  15. Adrian Jenkins says:

    I would love to see WN start to fly into Memphis. We have friends in Jonesboro, AR, and MEM is so much closer than LIT.

  16. Kilroy says:

    What’s the size of the O&D market in MEM vs CVG? To me, they appear to be at least superficially similar- declining hubs in small(er) markets, with large hubs (DFW & Atlanta vs ORD & DTW) with substantial O&D traffic that are just out of extended driving range of those hubs (4-6 hours). For that matter, you could probably make (or probably could have made) the same argument about the old TWA hub in St. Louis when AA took it over, as St. Louis is only ~6 hours from ORD.

    From a layman’s perspective, having anything more than limited operations at MEM or CVG doesn’t make much sense, unless you face capacity constraints at your other hubs. If you were to green field it and design your network from scratch, would you really have a mini-hub so close to your big one?

    • Gary says:

      Of the top 50 cities for O&D traffic, Cincy and Memphis ranked near the bottom. Cincy has the highest airfares in the nation…Memphis is #2. O&D traffic from these two cities go to neighboring cities for lower priced tickets.

      • Kilroy says:

        Yup. In Cinci, you have Dayton, Indy, Louisville, Lexington, and Columbus all within 2 hours’ drive, and from what I understand (and from my experience with DAY and Louisville) all are easier to get from curb to gate than CVG.

        You could argue in a way that this is actually not that bad for people in Cincy, as for people willing to drive a little there are tons of options at competitive prices (including a few Southwest and ex-Airtran airports).

        For high airfares without a ton of driving options to other airports, look to Rogers/Bentonville/NW Arkansas. I’ve heard that 90% of the business through the main airport there in NW Arkansas is corporate business serving Walmart. For leisure travelers, there is Branson, Missouri and not a whole lot else in the area.

  17. Curious former CVGer says:

    Cranky – as someone who used to live in the CVG area and misses and now lives in a much larger O&D market with terrific high-frequency nonstops to everywhere I need to go, I sometimes wonder how people compare CVG to MEM. CVG’s O&D is only low because so many people drive to DAY, IND, CMH, and even SDF to escape the high DL fares – which have come down in recent years.

    Given that the CVG – CDG longhaul is seemingly safe due to (a) CVG’s large international population that will help keep loads high and (b) the tremendous amount of GE Aircraft Engine traffic bound for Airbus/Toulouse, what are your general thoughts on the long-term future of CVG? Will it continue to have good connectivity to ORD, LGA/JFK/EWR, BOS, DCA/IAD/BWI, HOU/IAH, LAX, SFO?

    • CF says:

      I would imagine the Paris flight is only safe if there are corporate contracts that require that flight. (I assume that’s why it still operates.)

      Of the markets you mention, I can’t imagine we’d ever see Cincinnati without good service to all of those. LA and SF are the ones most in danger, but the rest aren’t at all.

  18. Grant Parish says:

    I live in Memphis and the hub was a factor in moving here as I fly fairly often. For years, I was willing to pay “reasonably” higher prices for the access to 300 flights a day. Since the Delta merger, rates have gone up while routes have been cut.

    My family has driven to both Little Rock and Nashville to take cheaper flights. It is not unusual for a flight originating in Little Rock that stops in Memphis before traveling on to a final destination to be several hundred dollars cheaper than the exact same flight if boarded in Memphis.

    This summer a local tv station did a story on the exodus of Memphians to Little Rock to fly. They estimated (in part by counting Memphis license plates in Little Rock Airport parking) that 100,000 Memphis residents fly out of Little Rock annually. I know that I would probably fly an additional 5 or 6 trips out of Memphis if the fairs were lower.

    • Kilroy says:

      This is exactly what people did (still do?) a few years back in the Cinci area: Drive an hour north to DAY, take a puddle jumper to connect or stop through CVG, and save a few dollars.

  19. Gary says:

    Just look at the map…Memphis is almost smack in the middle of the U.S.

    With Delta leaving…what a great opportunity for Frontier to develop a hub here and expend into the eastern U.S.

    Or for JetBlue to grow a hub here for an expansion into the central U.S.

    • sure its geographically desireable, but the new P2P airlines dont want to invest the resources needed to build a mostly connecting Pax hub. Its very expensive for not much return. Just because a connecting hub existed, doesn’t mean another one should be put in. Without o/d especially these airlines who fly larger planes (than RJs) would struggle.

      WHY should B6 or F9 enter? middle of the country isn’t a solid argument–how will they make money, what routes, why MEM instead of non-stop or connect through existing markets? Why not grow to other cities or near-international?

      • Gary says:

        I realize that this is not the best time economically for any hub expansion. I believe that Memphis would be a logical choice because it would be a logical alternative to the Atlanta and even the Chicago hubs…such as Western developed Salt Lake City as an alternative to United’s Denver hub. I suggested Frontier because it already has adapted the hub strategy in Denver. If its finances were in order, it could logically expand eastward by establishing a hub in Memphis. Memphis would be a better fit than St. Louis because Memphis would afford the opportunity for Frontier to compete with Delta’s virtual monopoly and stronghold on the Southeast.

        JetBlue could also come to Memphis and establish a more centralized location for any future expansion in the central U.S.

        I believe that Memphis would be a better choice than Nashville or St. Louis for the expansion of Frontier or JetBlue because Southwest is firmly established in the two cities…there currently are no low cost carriers operating in Memphis…other than Air Trans that really doesn’t provide Memphis with low fares.

        True, Memphis (like Cincinnati) has low o&d traffic…which is due to the high air fare structure here that drives potential local passengers to neighboring cities for cheaper fares. Also, medium size cities that have hubs such as SLC and Charlotte work well…in Charlotte, o&d traffic is just 20% with 80% connecting…(2008)

        There you have it…I’m sure you will be able to punch holes in it…but I firmly believe that a low cost carrier hub in Memphis would be a good fit.

    • CF says:

      Gary – St Louis was also geographically desirable and look what happened there. Geography is only a piece of the puzzle (and a small one at that – look at what JetBlue has done in geographically undesirable Boston). What really matters, as others have pointed out here, is the size of the local market. Memphis isn’t a big market and has more service than it likely can support (though that’s quickly disappearing).

      While I could see JetBlue eventually flying to Boston and New York, that’s it. I wouldn’t expect anything else. And Frontier doesn’t hub anymore – there might be some point to point flying opportunities that it could pick up but that’s all I’d expect to see.

      In a few years, I imagine we’ll see Delta still flying to the hubs and some other major business centers and not much else. Southwest will have expanded to some extent, but it will be limited by its already large presences at St Louis and Nashville. We may very well see Spirit ramping up if the opportunity arises. I can’t wait to hear how much the people of Memphis complain when that happens.

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