Delta Isn’t Actually Closing Its Memphis Hub Completely

In the last couple of weeks, the news has come out that Delta is closing its Memphis hub. But that’s not really what’s happening. What’s actually occurring is Delta is cutting more service — from 94 to 64 daily flights. The hub is still there with some minor banks (you can still connect nicely from Nashville to New Orleans, for example), but Delta is starting to schedule it less like a hub and more for local travelers. It’s also scheduling with the realization that it is retiring a lot of 50 seat regional jets in the near future.

If you remember the last time I wrote about Memphis, Delta had just cut Memphis to 94 flights per day and it was mostly in 3 distinct banks in the morning, midday, and evening. After this latest cut, the banks will still exist, but they seem a bit looser with their time bands. There are some good connections, but that seems to be more coincidence than anything else. Here’s the new service map:

Delta Memphis Map 64 Departures per Day

What you don’t see on this map is that Baton Rouge, Des Moines. Ft Lauderdale, Jackson (MS), Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Phoenix, Shreveport, St Louis, Tulsa, Knoxville, and Northwest Arkansas will lose all service from Memphis. Most of these shouldn’t be a surprise. Look at what we have – mostly smaller cities that are relatively nearby. So they were able to bring a little bit of local traffic into the hub and then send it out to other cities. But as any hub shrinks, so do connecting opportunities. And these cities just couldn’t hold their own in the system.

Meanwhile, many other cities lost frequencies to the point where, outside Delta’s hubs, only Charlotte, New Orleans, and Chicago have more than 2 flights per day. Many have just 1, and I would be amazed if they last much longer. Here is how those 64 departures per day break down:

Delta Memphis Departures By Destination Type

I included LAX as a hub in here, because I’m pretty certain that there is only service in that market because of Delta’s presence in LA and not Memphis. Hub service is safe, as long as those places remain hubs. I would think, however, that many of the non-hub markets that have single daily service are in trouble. Can a single daily flight to Nashville, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Louisville or Columbus really work in the long run? I don’t see how.

Let’s look at Nashville. With a morning flight into Memphis and an evening flight out, that provides very little utility to a Memphis-based traveler. You’re better off driving. That flight does, however, still connect people from Nashville through Memphis to places like Houston, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. Maybe Delta still sees enough connecting traffic opportunity to keep this flight alive. But it has to be on life support.

Of the single-daily markets, the ones that should have the best chance of survival are Vegas and Orlando. After all, those are leisure markets that don’t require a business schedule. They are also operated on larger aircraft. This is important because as Delta restructures its fleet to have much fewer 50-seat regionals, it has to rethink routes that use those airplanes. Just look at how the Memphis service is breaking down by aircraft type now:

Delta Memphis Flights by Aircraft Type

Most (but not all) of the cuts we saw in this round were on 50-seat regionals. And that isn’t a surprise. But enough of this downbeat post. Let’s look at the positives here.

You can tell which of these markets are the most successful with local traffic. Three daily to Charlotte, Chicago, and New Orleans? I’m guessing those are doing pretty well to retain that kind of frequency. Even double daily flights to places like Houston, Dallas, Philly, and yes, Pittsburgh seem to bode well for them staying around longer than others.

And there’s even been some growth hidden in all these cuts. Atlanta goes from 9 daily flights to 10 daily. And Detroit goes from 3 daily to 5 daily. What gives? This is all part of the process of Delta turning Memphis into an operation that serves the local traveler more than the connecting traveler. Even with the hub gone, Delta will still have a deep frequent flier base in the area. So people will continue to fly Delta. But with all these nonstop flights disappearing, Delta will end up carrying more and more of these people through other hubs. So it needs to boost frequency and capacity to be able to handle that.

Delta hasn’t actually closed its hub in Memphis, but it’s looking less and less like a hub every day. Delta isn’t calling it a hub anymore, but that doesn’t mean the airline is done transforming how it serves the airport. I bet we’ll still see more cuts coming.

[Mapping via Great Circle Mapper]

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