Delta Isn’t Actually Closing Its Memphis Hub Completely

Delta, MEM - Memphis

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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48 comments on “Delta Isn’t Actually Closing Its Memphis Hub Completely

    1. Dale – Well I have no way of knowing for sure, but if they can justify LA to Columbus and Raleigh then I would think Memphis would be good to keep at least one flight.

  1. Even more cuts you think? US settled around 45 dailies at PIT after dehubbing there. MEM is more centrally located in the country and so I think 64 dailies might just be the end of it.

    Of course they will look at PIT,RDU,AUS and decide they may need to cut those, but I would think there’s not much more to cut.

    1. Sanjeev – It’s not the number but how they are allocated. The single daily flights in several short haul business markets just don’t make sense. Eric’s suggestion that they are there for aircraft rotation purposes makes the most sense of any explanation I’ve heard. But those will change over time as well so maybe the flights will disappear.

  2. I have to say I’m surprised that DL stripped Memphis of the “Hub” title before Cincinnati… even though the writing has been on the wall for both cities since the merger went through. With FedEx helping keep landing fees down, I figured they would have remained a more stable operation for much longer. Obviously, I think DL will be the primary carrier in Memphis even after the drawback. However, I will be interested to see if any other airlines, like WN, make inroads in the community now that DL is not majorly invested in the region

    1. Cincinnati is actually perfect where it is right now. I want to say (but don’t have the facts in front of me) that majority of flights now are two-class which is where Delta wants it’s fleet to look like. Also CVG has the support of a strong business community with companies like P&G and GE. And as long as the CVG-CDG daily stays around, Cincinnati should be safe. Memphis could not support it’s AMS service and couldn’t even support JFK (Delta’s primary US-EU departure point). That’s when Memphis died.

  3. While they may be a lot of DL mileage members in Memphis, with the lack of nonstops does open up the chance that if local must now connect, they may turn to other carriers if times/fares are better for them. Who knows if DL sees they are loosing locals in what now will be a connecting market, they could bring some service back or at least back for the end of year holiday season.

  4. The terminal at Memphis is already a ghost town with so few flights and many airport businesses closed. I think they will soon have to close off some of the concourses as they are just not needed. Memphis is small city that’s not really growing, economically challenged with high poverty and weak business and tourism traffic. The local O&D simply won’t support a large operation by Delta, or any other airline. Southwest will start 6 flights per day in November but it won’t be the salvation of MEM. Delta can make life very difficult for SWA so it’s unlikely SWA will increase a great deal. Interesting that Southwest didn’t schedule any flights to the west, and is dropping the long time AirTran service to ATL, giving Delta a total monopoly on the top route from MEM. Delta will continue to be the largest carrier at MEM for the foreseeable future. With its strong local frequent flyer base, Delta should do well in a de-hubbed Memphis. I also expect a lot more cuts by Delta at MEM in the coming months.

    1. Gary Johnson didn’t write this comment…It sounds more like MoMemphis who is for whatever reasons rabid anti-Memphis. Anyway, it should be pointed out that while Memphis has its economic challenges, it also has a Metro GNP that is greater that 12-14 states, and its metro-GNP is equivalent to the State of Hawaii or West Virginia. It should also be pointed out that the that the metro-GNP is greater than about 125-140 countries.

      While Delta is shrinking, Southwest is slowly adding flights. The Airport President today announced that one or two other airlines plan to enter the Memphis market in the coming months (He didn’t name the airlines). With Southwest and the coming two additional airlines, Memphis will finally get low fares. And with the lower fares will come increased origination and destination traffic that will, who knows, cause even Delta to add more flights.

      30 years of high air fares that the hub caused will soon end here…air fares that have severely damaged the economic development of this region. Hopefully this will soon end, and Memphis will once again grow and prosper.

      1. Gary Johnson – Southwest isn’t exactly doing major additions in Memphis. The last schedule change actually removed all Atlanta flights. So I’m far from optimistic that this will be a major station for Southwest.

        As for 1 or 2 new airlines coming into Memphis, I will be surprised. Who would it be? I can’t think of any airline that would view Memphis as a real opportunity right now. Existing airlines may expand services but I will be surprised if a new airline steps in. (Unless we’re talking about some silly start-up like PeopleExpress.)

        1. Southwest doesn’t need to do major additions in Memphis to cause nearly all airfares to decrease…Delta, AA, and United will match SW’s few flights…and for you to be surprised if one or two new airlines are coming to town…well then, I guess you will just have to surprise ..very surprised. (Southwest has already told the airport that it intends to be the largest carrier in Memphis)…so get ready to do some “walking in Memphis” soon…With lower fares, Beale Street and Graceland are more affordable.

          1. It does not appear that WN said it intended to be the largest carrier in MEM. That was said by the Airport Chairman along with other comments that don’t have any thing to back it up.
            WN is at MEM as existing carrier in AirTran, MEM got the carrier by default and WN is not really adding much and will watch what happens. It is easier to stick around in a place where you already have operations, then to try and come back later.
            Also by adding new routes WN would be eligible on those routes for the “incentive” package from MEM.

  5. One of these days, I hope to read:

    “_______ Airlines announced today, effective immediately, it is closing its hub at _________. This was the last domestic hub operated by any airline in the US.”

    I hope what used to be hubs will simply be interchange cities, like way back when, airports were places where everyone could connect with every other airline, including Southwest. Interchange agreements between every, every carrier. How many interchange cities would there be? How would that affect airport design and construction across the country, ATC work?

    And for something else of interest or not: Oh, so the regionals are hiring? A real ad for “passenger service agents,” by Air Wisconsin in the local, weekly, Dulles-area paper. “Passenger service agents.” “Must be able to…bend, kneel, and squat repeatedly.” Customer service folks, at last? No, just to perform “ramp” operations, and I guess for UA. Do we call these people “passenger service agents?” Just wondering, but does UA actually run or do anything with its own people anymore?

    1. JayB – That will never happen. Hubs are excellent for people in small to medium cities because it gives single stop access to much of the country and double stop access to just about the entire world. Even in big cities, it still allows an airline without a huge presence to provide a good breadth of service.

      1. Hubs are excellent for people in medium cities if the people can afford the tickets. Other wise, as in Memphis, the airport prospered from connecting traffic while the city itself suffered from the economic hardship of high air fares.

      2. I believe the times are a’changn’, with soon-to-be just 3 majors. To me, the the hubs are little more than vehicles to lock in high, high fares both for the hub city and the ciites at the end of the spokes. They don’t really increase competition when every airline has to run its own spokes, just to hold its own, on-line. Let ’em compete on the mainlines.

        Does Harrisburg, Pa. with 1-carrier spokes to Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Philly, and Dulles, really do all that much for competitive prices for the travelers to/from Harrisburg? Not really. Service to each of these places is really only in the carrierrs’ interest to lock in on-line traffic, not to servce the fine folks in MDT.

        Wouldn’t it be better if one carrier, like a Frontier, or a second carrier started interline service to the east, west, north, south, with mainline aircraft, and the fight were over who is the best carrier at the interchange point?

        You’re right, Cranky. Won’t happen until someone figures out having a bunch of low load-factor regionals going hither and yon all over the map might not be a great idea for anyone other than someone wanting to keep high fares. Seems so ineffieicent.

        No biz genius here, but…!

        1. JayB, but if you’re going from Harrisburg, PA to Atlanta, but are willing to connect through CLE, ATL, PHL, or DTW then you get a low fare because the airlines connecting over that have little pricing power. Its the nonstops that give you pricing power.

  6. One thing to consider, SWA entrance to a city does not guarantee cheaper fares or better service. They came into Atlanta are are rarely cheaper than Delta. SWA is not in business to charge the least, they are in business to charge what the market bears and they have chosen to not undercut Delta in ATL. They fill planes with fairly high ticket prices and don’t be surprised if you see the same in Memphis.
    SWA is a fine airline, but “low-cost”….not so much anymore.

    1. I don’t know, Brad…thousand of Memphis travelers travel to Little Rock and Nashville to take advantage of Southwest’s low fares. Are they just imaging things?

      1. No, not at all, and trust me…SWA prices to attract customers and get people to drive to Little Rock…that is exactly my point. Here in Atlanta, we used to Drive to BHM for the same reason. However, when they opened shop in Atlanta the pricing structure was competitive but not as cheap as BHM used to be. I just feel that MEM will be similar and they will charge a premium (by their standards) for their service since you don’t have to drive to Little Rock. They are an awesome airline and I know MEM will enjoy their service just as we have here.

    2. Absolutely. Having lived in Albuquerque in the mid-90’s, when WN still had a low-fare aura about it, they did the same thing with ABQ-LAX, which they ran the only nonstops on (except for a short time when Reno Air ran a few). If I remember correctly, the ABQ-LAX walk-up fare was at their self-declared “maximum one-way fare” rate, while ABQ-BNA & ABQ-BWI were less.

      1. You will never appreciate low fares until you have experience what Memphis has endured for about 25 years. For instance….fares as high as $1100 to Dallas, Chicago, and Detroit on Delta…compared to $250 web only fares to the same locations on Southwest from Little Rock or Dallas. These fares have seriously hurt the Memphis economy…it has undermined our effort to attract new businesses and conventions. Any lower fare would be welcomed. And hopefully Southwest is only the beginning…the ultra-low cost carrier Spirit would certainly be a welcomed catch.

        1. Delta and its predecessor hubbing carriers have done far more good for the Memphis economy with their over service than they have hurt it with high fares. Everything is relative, but there are airports where the average airfare is indeed 1.5x that of MEM. Little Rock is not attracting conventions of significance because of Southwest, but Memphis has attracted investment and conventions that could be atleast partially attributed to Delta’s hub.

          Further, Delta has never charged an average fare of $1,100 to any domestic market it served from Memphis. This I guarantee. Does it offer those fares at the last minute? Yes, just as it does in Atlanta and Detroit (where it has hubs), smaller markets like Baton Rouge and similarly sized markets like New Orleans (where it doesn’t have a hub). Delta does this in every market where it can.

          You do realize the only way to have the level of service that Delta was able to maintain at Memphis was going to demand a fare premium on the local market. This is the way that small-market hubs have to work.

          Finally, to suggest that you are going to be better off with the hub closed is absolutely out of touch with reality. You will lose connectivity and employment that low fares will not be able to recreate.

          But, this is what Memphis wanted, and wants!

  7. More about Southwest’s new service for Memphis and the Chamber of Commerce’ Rapid Rewards drive,


  8. With Delta’s drawdown of flights and formal de-hubbing of MEM, the airport will soon be at about the right size for the foreseeable future. Memphis certainly has its share of problems, but the bottom line is the city and region are not growing and the economic climate doesn’t compare to other cities. In contrast, Nashville is booming and BNA has seen its airport flourish as a result. The only hub in Memphis is FedEx Express.

  9. The only hub in Memphis is FedEx. With Delta’s big draw down of flights and formal de-hubbing of Memphis, the passenger side of the airport is actually at about the right size for the times. Memphis and its region are simply not growing and have huge economic challenges. In stark contrast Nashville is booming with robust growth and strong economic development.

    1. Once again…this is not Gary Johnson posting this. I feel that Memphis has strong potential in being a focus city for a low cost carrier competing with Delta’s monopolistic hold on the Southeast. Memphis has great potential for growth once high air fares are eliminated.

    1. Jim – I don’t know that I’ve heard Delta call LAX a hub officially, but it’s at least a strong focus city. And that’s why I figure Memphis has a shot at maintaining LA service, not because of Memphis.

      1. My guess is that MEM–LAX is just one of these routes that works on its own simply because Memphis is big enough and L.A. is huge. With the loss of connections at MEM it’s down from 3 dailies to 2, but it still works. Delta operates it because of historical legacy, but if they stopped then someone else might jump in, just like United started LAX–PIT as soon as US Airways ditched that market.

  10. It’s true that Memphis as a city is in bad shape. Part of the many problems at the airport is that the Airport Authority has been “in bed” with Northwest and Delta for decades. Putting all their eggs in one basket to preserve the precious “hub” MEM even dreamed of becoming some sort of “Aerotropolis”! MEM conspired to drive out any carrier who dared compete with NWA/DL (such as Frontier) and they worked hard to keep Southwest away for decades. The airport authority and local travelers are now paying the price. The backward Memphis politicians have perpetuated all of this by keeping the same airport director (Larry Cox) in the same job for over 30 years. All MEM really cares about is keeping Fred Smith and FedEx’s “purple tails” happy. It’s also laughable that Memphis started a Facebook open group “Delta Does Memphis” so that locals could rant and rage about the high fares, inept local politicians and generally bash Delta and the airlines serving Memphis. Very typical of how things happen in Memphis.

  11. I flew through Memphis last week on Delta to Vegas and was shocked at the condition of the airport itself. It was like getting in a time machine and going back 30 years!

  12. The terminal buildings at Memphis are old and very dated with narrow corridors, low ceilings and drab brown brick. So many of the airport shops and restaurants are closed they most certainly will have to close off some of the concourses. Yet, the airport just built a huge new parking garage in front of the terminal which is almost completely empty, just like the terminal itself. What’s even worse is the area surrounding the airport — it’s horrible with trash-filled streets, seedy motels, porno shops and nothing but warehouses. So much for the “Aerotropolis”! The “glory days” for Memphis are gone.

    1. I knew someone who had a long layover in Memphis many years ago so he decided to visit Graceland. He was too cheap for a cab, however, and looking at a map he figured that jumping over a few fences would save a lot of walking. Airport police didn’t like that…

  13. CF – Thanks for the article. If one looks at the patterns of SWA expansion in cities with a similar population would you expect that SWA would add LAS or PHX. I travel from MEM to SAN and LAX bi-weekly for work and I would like to see west bound connection opportunities. Also, what other cities would you expect SWA to offer long term – provided the current flights do OK…..

  14. I’ve been to/through Memphis twice. Once was connecting from LAX to PIT, which apparently survive the cuts; the other was going to Northern Arkansas, where we opted to fly nonstop to Memphis and drive 4 hours rather than connect to Little Rock and shorten the drive to just under 2 hours (price was also a factor: that nonstop to Memphis happened to be particularly cheap). So based on my limited Memphis experience, it looks like Delta is doing the right thing :-)

    The one time I flew from LAX to Little Rock (again, with the actual destination about a 2-hour drive out), the return was on Delta via Atlanta. This was after the Delta-Northwest merger had been announced but before it actually happened. It did feel strange flying east over Memphis, then back west over both Memphis and Little Rock, but this worked out better than other options because of schedule or price (don’t remember which, possibly both). So I can definitely see why Little Rock is being cut — probably very little local traffic when the drive is just over 2 hours, and connections which were not that great even in the good old Northwest days.

  15. We flew to Memphis this spring and the airport was dead. Hardly any flights on the board and we were there around 6pm. I can see why Delta didn’t need a hub or even a lot of flights in Memphis. We found the city totally underwhelming except for barbeque ribs.

  16. Cranky – the one O&D remaining that really surprises me is MEM-CLT. US has 4 or 5 daily in this market – with some operated by mainline. Me thinks there is a corporate contract out there somewhere…but I agree with you, more cuts to come. Slowly chipping away at it until there will be nothing left but ATL/DTW and a couple of one-offs to LAX/LGA/MCO/LAS.

  17. Flew from LAX-MEM in May on Delta and the flight was 3/4 empty. Returned via SLC on Delta and that flight was only about half full. Shocked to see the Memphis airport so empty.

  18. MEM-RDU flights are always full. Granted they are the 50-seat regionals. They recently reduced the number of flights from 3 to 2. But even when there were 3 they were full. I’d hate to see this leg die out or be reduced to 1 daily.

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