Winning and Losing Airports in the Washington/National Slot Shuffle

Washington’s National Airport is, to put it mildly, a highly desirable place to fly. It is mere minutes from downtown Washington and is the preferred airport for many a businessperson and politician. It is also slot-restricted, so rarely do airlines have the opportunity to improve their standing. Recently, however, there was a big change. Now we know which destinations will be happy and which will be crying.

The reason for the big shift was the American/US Airways merger. US Airways already had the most slots at the airport, and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) decided that it didn’t want to allow US Airways to combine with American and become even stronger there. To right this “wrong,” DOJ forced the airlines to sell off 52 slot pairs (one pair = one departure and one arrival per day) to new entrants. JetBlue already leased 8 of those and would get them permanently, so the net result was that 44 slot pairs would change hands.

For American and US Airways, that meant cutting flights in order to fit under the new cap. The new airline announced it would cut 17 cities from its nonstop network at National (though one, San Diego, was cut in favor of adding a second LAX flight, so I don’t count that one). On the flip side, Southwest won 27 slots, JetBlue picked up 12 (in addition to the 8 it already leased), and Virgin America scooped up 4. The last one is a Sunday-only slot pair that Southwest didn’t want and is still unassigned, I believe.

I had assumed that a lot of places would be unhappy with all this. After all, the new American would end up cutting flights to smaller cities while the new low cost carriers would just add to big cities that already had a ton of service. Now that Southwest has unveiled its plans and JetBlue has told us half its story, I have to say it’s not nearly as bad as I thought. Here are the winners and losers.

Lose Nonstop DCA

Let’s start with those airports that are going to be downright pissed. All of the above airports will lose their only nonstop flight to Washington/National. Most of these saw only one daily flight (except Saturday), though Islip, Savannah, and Wilmington each had two. Little Rock can take some solace in knowing that American is starting a nonstop flight to New York/LaGuardia so even though one door is closing, a new one is opening up. The rest of these are just small cities, often with big military ties that helped keep those airplanes profitable. There was little chance that anyone else would step into these markets.

Lose Competitor DCA

Each of these four markets will lose American/US Airways nonstop service to National entirely, but they still have nonstop flights on at least one other airline (in parentheses). Will Detroit and Minneapolis really be devastated? Probably not. Omaha will now have only a single flight on Delta, but it’s also not a huge loss there. But Montreal had 2 daily flights on US Airways and will now have only two remaining on Air Canada. The Air Canada schedule won’t permit day trips to DC anymore, so that’s a loss. None of the new entrants are putting airplanes here, so this is a net negative for all, even if it’s not a huge one.

Lose One Gain One DCA

One little market won the lottery, and that’s Nassau in the Bahamas. Nassau is losing its US Airways flight, but JetBlue announced it will add a flight of its own in the market with its new slot windfall. JetBlue will add more seats than US Airways pulls out and it will likely do so at a lower fare. The only people sad about this are US Airways frequent fliers and those who like to fly First Class. Overall, I’d say this is a slight positive at worst for Nassau but probably better than that.

More Frequency DCA

There are a couple of markets that won’t see the players change at all but they will get more flights from Southwest. Both Houston and St Louis already have 2 daily flights on Southwest and they’ll get more. We don’t know the numbers yet, but that will be announced in May. Either way, it’s still an improvement since they lose nothing from any other airline as of now.

New Competitor DCA

The biggest grouping on the positive side are those cities that will now gain a new nonstop competitor. All of these cities have American/US Airways nonstop service today and will now get some good competition. Akron/Canton will take its 1 US Airways flight today and add Southwest service. (We don’t know how many flights until May.) The same goes for Indianapolis where US Airways has a much larger presence with 6 a day. Nashville may have lost US Airways and American competing head-to-head but now Southwest will bring 3 daily into the market to compete with the 6 at the new American. New Orleans will get 2 from Southwest and Charleston will get 2 from JetBlue to go up against American’s 5 in each. Hartford will also get 2 from JetBlue to compete against American’s 6. Tampa is the big winner. It goes from 1 to 2 daily on JetBlue and it will also get 2 new nonstops from Southwest. American keeps 5. These guys should all be happy.

First Nonstop DCA

The last bracket has the two airports that have no nonstop service today. I say it’s their first nonstop but that’s not really true. Chicago/Midway had ATA service until that airline shut down, so this is just a long overdue return. It’s in a BIG way with 9 daily flights. And Dallas/Love Field, well, it has been prohibited to have nonstop service in this market since the Wright Amendment went into effect. That changes in October, so it’s no surprise here.

Love may end up getting even luckier if Virgin America wins its battle for gates at the airport. If it wins, then Virgin will start four daily flights to National from Love. If it fails, then Virgin will have to look elsewhere to determine how to use its 4 slots. And these slots can’t go to hubs in San Francisco and LA because of the perimeter rule.

JetBlue still has 6 slots that it hasn’t allocated yet, but I bet those go to existing Florida markets. The smart plan is to announce the cities that get new nonstop service first – makes a bigger splash. But maybe I’ll be surprised here as well. So far, I’ll certainly admit that more mid-size cities are getting service than I expected. But the small cities are once again left out in the cold.

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