Airlines Had a Ton of Late Night Flights Last Night That Don’t Normally Operate

One of the hallmarks of a “new era” legacy airline is its ability to run more flexible banks at its hubs to take advantage of demand. This is something that some airlines picked up far earlier than others. But on the extremely busy Sunday after Thanksgiving, I thought it would be fun to look at how the big three decided to ramp things up using maps from one of my favorite sites, the Great Circle Mapper.

One of the airlines that learned to perfect this model very early was US Airways. In fact, it was way back at America West that the benefits of flexible banks became clear.

America West used to operate a “Nite Flight” hub in Vegas. This used to do well since it allowed the airline to fly airplanes much longer than would otherwise have been possible. The revenue was enough to justify it… until fuel prices soared. The peak days were still good, but it wasn’t enough to justify an entire hub’s existence. The hub went away, but some night flights were brought into the main Phoenix hub on peak days instead. Yes, the local passengers going to Vegas were lost, but all those connections didn’t care if they changed planes in Vegas or Phoenix. It worked.

Under US Airways, this expanded to the Charlotte hub. Now it exists with American as well. Last night, the Phoenix operation launched a slew of westbound flights between 1145p and 1150p (blue) with eastbound flights launching between 1215a and 1259a (red).

American Phoenix Peak Night Flights

These flights didn’t exist in a vacuum. They offered connections to inbound flights that arrived just beforehand. Effectively, American added an extra bank to its regular schedule. As mentioned, it did the same in Charlotte, though it’s not a directional bank in the same way it is in Phoenix. All of these flights left between 1159p and 1236a.

American Charlotte Peak Night Flights

Naturally, I wondered if this would spread to the legacy American hubs this year or whether it would take more time. The answer? It didn’t go to every hub, but Dallas/Ft Worth had one heck of a push between 1140p and 1159p last night. Just look at the flights that were scheduled to go in that 20 minute period.

American DFW Peak Night Flights

It’s clear that American still likes this flexible hub strategy that US Airways used so well, and DFW is already seeing the benefit. I’ll be very interested to see if we get this in other hubs in the future, like Chicago. Maybe not, however, since United has beat American to the punch there.

United was not an early adopter of the flexible schedule, but it got very aggressive this year. (I admit, I don’t know what it looked like last year, but I imagine this was more extensive.) Both Chicago and Denver saw massive banks operating around midnight. Here’s Chicago first.

United Chicago Late Night Hub

Every one of those flights was scheduled to depart in a half hour window between 1150p and 1220a. As you can imagine, some of these eastbound redeyes from Chicago were brutal from an arrival time perspective. That 1218a departure to Boston was scheduled to arrive at 337a. Ouch.

Here’s what Denver had departing between 1145p and 1230a (with a single straggler, the Hartford flight, going at 1a).

United Denver Late Night Hub

It’s not surprising that United could fill flights between big cities on one of the peak days of the entire year, but it might be surprising to see something like, say, Chicago-Akron/Canton. You can say the same about American as well with flights like DFW to Abilene. But it’s important to remember a couple things.

First, these are taking connections from elsewhere in the system so it’s not dependent on local traffic alone. Second and more importantly, fares are high on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and demand is very strong. Running these flights doesn’t take extra airplanes. These are airplanes that usually sit overnight. While it might take a toll on the fleet to run it at such a high utilization every day, there’s certainly flexibility to allow it to happen on peak days.

If American and United can justify the cost of crews and fuel, then these flights are worth running. Even a half-full airplane with decent fares (something that’s only possible because demand is so high the rest of the day on a peak day like this) is probably worth running.

We know American is a believer (at least through its current management team), and looking at the heft of its schedule, United seems to believe as well. But what about Delta? As is often the case, Delta seems to zig while the others zag. Yes, it bulked up its schedule in a couple of hubs but not nearly to the same extent as American and United.

Here’s what Atlanta looked like. These flights departed between 11p and 1125p.

Delta Atlanta Night Flights

That’s not a tiny number of flights, so why do I say this isn’t quite the same level of commitment? Well, Delta already runs a bank leaving at 11p. Bigger cities like Nashville and Orlando have flights at that time on a normal day. Even smaller cities like Augusta, GA have one then as well. So this isn’t creating a brand new bank. It’s just expanding upon the existing bank.

Where did Delta do something more? In Salt Lake City where these flights left between 1130p and 1159p.

Delta Salt Lake Redeye

This is closer to what the other airlines did, but you can see it’s on a much smaller scale.

If you took any of these flights last night, you’re probably on your tenth cup of coffee by the time you read this. But these flexible banks really are great for everyone. The airlines can make more money while offering travelers lower fares and more availability on peak travel days. You’ll see more of this at Christmas as well.

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