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]

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