As United Shrinks Cleveland, Other Airlines Start to Move In

Delta, Frontier, United

That didn’t take long. Just last week United announced it would dismantle its Cleveland hub, but now others are already starting to move in. Specifically, we see both Frontier and Delta announcing service. I’m sure the people of Cleveland are happy to see this, but I really wouldn’t expect to see a ton more at this point.

Picking at United's Remains in Cleveland

When United pulled back, it made sense for other carriers which saw opportunity to try to march on in where it made sense in the network. We haven’t seen American do anything yet (in fact, it canceled its Cleveland-LaGuardia flying before this happened), but I have to imagine the airline is too preoccupied right now with the merger to bother here. That leaves Delta as one the one legacy carrier that could try something, and it certainly has.

Delta only flew from Cleveland to New York, Atlanta, Detroit, and Minneapolis previously, so you might have thought that it would try Cincinnati or Salt Lake. No. United didn’t fly those, and so United’s changes don’t alter Delta’s previous view that these markets couldn’t support service.

Instead, Delta went and looked at the markets United cut and found two where it had enough of a presence that it could justify spending some airplane time: Indianapolis and Raleigh/Durham.

Indianapolis is one of the old Northwest Heartland markets where there is no dominant carrier but Delta is the biggest of the big guys offering service to more than just the hubs. Believe it or not, United had up to 6 flights a day in this market so there had to be some decent demand. Delta is going in very light. It will send a 50-seat CRJ from Indy to Cleveland at 7a and then have it turn back around, getting to Indy at 945a. The way I look at it, Delta can now attract the morning business traveler who wants to go to Cleveland so he or she can do a full day of work. On the return, connecting options are available later in the day.

As I wrote in November, Raleigh/Durham is a market that Delta has really built up over the last couple years. Nobody dominates it, though its history is staunchly rooted in American Airlines territory. United ran three flights a day here from Cleveland and now Delta will put just one flight in. The pattern is a little different. A larger CRJ-700 will leave Raleigh/Durham at 755p, spend the night in Cleveland and return at 650a. That’s a good schedule for someone doing a day trip out of Cleveland but not for someone in Raleigh/Durham. I assume this was just an airplane that was going to spend the night Raleigh. Now it’ll try to do something better.

In the end, these carry a minimal risk. They are markets that make more sense for Delta than others, and the airline is smart to give them a shot. I have no clue if they’ll work or not. My guess is Delta doesn’t either, but its best guess is that it’s worth trying.

For Frontier, it’s a different story. The airline decided to pull a reverse-Lebron by claiming it’s taking its talents to Cleveland from both Seattle and Orlando. (Who writes these releases anyway? Sheesh.)

Frontier is already fairly new in Cleveland. I mean, it does some charter flying from Apple Vacations to the Caribbean, but other than that, it only launched service there a year ago when it began 4 weekly flights to Denver. (It’s now up to 5 weekly.) Then just last week it started twice weekly flights to Trenton. But seeing United cut back in Cleveland has pushed Frontier to do more.

What’s interesting about this move is that neither Seattle nor Orlando were impacted by the downsizing in Cleveland. As far as I can tell, Seattle hasn’t had nonstop service from Cleveland recently. Meanwhile, Orlando isn’t seeing any cuts from United since it’s still a big market for locals in Cleveland. So why is Frontier making this move?

I have to assume that these are markets Frontier had scoped before and found attractive. But now, there’s an added PR value to the launch so that could have helped push forward timing. United cuts back and everyone is mad. Frontier comes in as a the white knight, here to save Clevelanders from certain doom. It just looks good and should get them some quality press.

Why are these markets attractive? Look at a market like Cleveland to Orlando. United’s lowest filed one way fare is $475 all-in. The lowest roundtrip is $468.30. (Yes, this is one of those old school markets where it can be cheaper to fly roundtrip than one way.) That’s expensive, and that leaves plenty of room for Frontier to come in and slash on its 4 weekly flights. As for Seattle, it’s only running thrice weekly during the summer. Cherry pick the times that work best.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see more growth in Cleveland from the ultra low cost guys like Frontier if these markets work. But any other growth is likely to be small and strategic like we’ve seen with Delta. I don’t think there are a ton of those options out there.

[Original vulture photo via Shutterstock]

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29 comments on “As United Shrinks Cleveland, Other Airlines Start to Move In

  1. I know that risk is generally a bad thing, but it seems Delta is taking a very modest step in operating a daily flight to Indianapolis and Raleigh-Durham. Would it perhaps have been more credible and a more compelling option to passengers, to try a double daily on these routes to see if business demand really exists or not ?
    A once daily seems like Delta is sitting on the fence, unable to make up its mind whether it wants to even try Cleveland or not, resulting in a half-hearted attempt that convinces nobody.

    1. Does Delta have the capacity to add more flights on short notice? As I understand, airlines are starting to get short on pilots and finding an available plane can be an issue too.

    2. David – My assumption is that one a day in a market like this can help them gauge demand. There is no nonstop competition and Delta has good connecting options throughout the day. So if this is timed right for one direction, it might help push higher-paying traffic on Delta that flew United previously. I agree that a second flight might have helped but this is still better than anything else out there.

      And MathFox – This is a tiny move, so little one-offs like this are always possible by tweaking schedules around.

  2. Any new service will be welcomed. Traveled into CLE the past three weekends. It’s not exactly bustling as it is, especially after about 7pm. You can start boarding up that D concourse right away. Hope the DL flights will be successful so they can build a reasonable 2/3x type schedule to these two cities as well as get creative to some of their other “non-hub” cities as they’ve been known to do. Plus SLC would be great for westbound connection options. Frontier stepping in is nice as well but from a fare perspective mostly.

    IMO it will really be interesting to see what WN does. I always thought they could do much more from CLE but I think the former-FL CAK stronghold has kept CLE in neutral.

  3. It will be interesting to see how the WN CAK v. CLE conundrum plays out. From what I understand, CAK was, and is, successful thanks to the UA choke-hold at Hopkins. I am not sure if the pull-down will change the calculus much since UA is keeping it’s footprint in LCC heavens (Florida & LAS) and major east and west coast biz markets. It is an obvious page from the Delta playbook down the road in CVG: leverage your FF base and maintain enough market presence to make the competition think twice before jumping in.

    I am kind of surprised that NK has not made a move on CLE (yet). PHX, LAS and FLL would be no-brainers. Spirit has never been shy about moving into markets when the dominant carrier is down on it;s luck, I don’t know what is stopping them now (other than lack of aircraft).

    1. Eric – I’m guessing what’s stopping Spirit is opportunity cost. There are so many good opportunities out there right now, it doesn’t know where to start.

  4. Good thing AA is dropping CLE service from LGA.

    ROA,GSO and RIC from LGA though! #StillAmericaWest

  5. The folks in CLE may not like loosing nonstop flights, but at least might like lower fares even if now they must connect. It’s still the wallet that decides which flight to take after all for most people.

  6. My most basic question with all this air shuffle is – at what point will the magers just say enough & kill off most of the small city to hub flying all together. I mean the threshold isn’t there anymore to make it work as the American Eagle example from yesterday shows.

    1. SEAN – They’d do it if it’s not profitable. There are still profits to be made in many of these smaller cities, so they will continue to see service. But others, like the ones on Essential Air Service, are going to face more trouble if the government doesn’t start jacking up subsidies.

      1. I think there’s also a market share concern in play, too. Carriers still rely on being able to say “they go everywhere” for prestige. While I do recognize that carriers today are more likely than ever before to leave an unprofitable market than stay in it just to make their route map more impressive, I do think breadth of network is still a factor in airline decision making. So, while airlines’ tolerances for unprofitable flying may be lower today than in the past, I don’t think you’ll see major carriers slimming down their networks to solely those that are “the most profitable”.

        1. Scott – I agree to some extent. I mean, I can’t imagine that any mainline airline cares about those Essential Air Service cities. They don’t nee that kind of breadth. But for smaller cities that can support service on their own, then yeah, I think there is a “coverage” aspect to it.

          1. Oh, I wasn’t referring to EAS markets… or even to “nearly” EAS markets. But, to Sean’s earlier point… I also don’t think carriers will say, “gee, we can cut service to six states in the heartland, move those planes to the desert and/or the East Coast and make twice the profit” either. I just mean that there are some hub-to-small-city routes that don’t perform nearly as well as other routes in the system that the majors will keep in order to maintain some breadth to their networks.

            1. Scott,

              Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, but there are those small markets like Franklin Oil City PA that have only a connection to a single hub i, e Philadelphia that could go since you can drive it in a few hours. Now there are places like Manhattan KS you wouldn’t cut since the University of Kansas is there & as a result, you have built in demand. The problem is flights go to Kansas City & not Chicago or Minneapolis. The real issue can be described as what my dad calls the 7-hour rule. If you can drive from point A to point b in 7-hours or less without traffic, you don’t fly.

              Cleveland is a large enough market that you should be able to reach nearly most of the other big cities with ease. Remember there’s the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nations formost medical research hospitals. That’s why you wouldn’t cut Rochester MN either.

            2. Actually, the University of Kansas is not in Manhattan. It’s in Lawrence. Kansas State University is in Manhattan. (Sorry–Kansas native here.)

            3. Drive from Oil City to Philadelphia in “a few hours?” Sean, you might want to learn how to read a map. Oil City-PHL is, at best, a 5 1/2 hour drive. Maybe you meant Oil City to Pittsburgh, which is a 1 1/2 hour drive, but then Pittsburgh doesn’t have the best service these days, so you’d have to do the drive and then also connect.

    2. I’m not sure if you are defining Cleveland as a small city in your comment, but it is unlikely they will ever cut hub service from the mid-sized cities unless there is some sea change in the economics of flying. The major’s concern is feeding the lucrative intercontinental flying, and while there is some business to be made from focusing solely on major cities, the reality is that feed from midsized cities is essential to making the high-frequency intercontinental flights work. A Cleveland or a Cincinnati might not demand a direct flight to London or Tokyo, but the connecting pax make up enough of the plane to continue banking flights to make connections.

  7. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Spirit jump in and do CLE-FLL, CLE-LVS and CLE-DFW, if not year round, than at least seasonal.

  8. These moves confirm my view that United’s move is ultimately better for Cleveland in the long run. It’s not much in terms of new service, but it’s a lot in just two weeks time (since UA’s announcement). Moreover, the real wildcard here is WN… and, as we know, they only release schedules in organized blocks. I’m not sure WN has many planes available to add to CLE in the short-term, though I think we can expect to see some growth (in frequencies if not destinations) in the medium-term.

    In terms of SEA… CLE-SEA has been an on-again-off-again route for CO for some time (mostly on a seasonal basis). I don’t know when CO/UA last flew it, but it was included in coverage of the de-hub announcement as a route that would no longer be flown.

    Like PIT, CLE will be a developing story for a while… not only as carriers respond to UA’s latest move, but I suspect UA isn’t done trimming CLE just yet, either, which will continue to change the market dynamics.

  9. UA operated SEA-CLE nonstop seasonally. Daily in the summer cruise season, I believe. There were nonstop flights in that market as recently as this past Christmas season – I know, because I booked my daughters on them. They may have just been on peak days. The new UA operates a highly variable schedule, certainly compared to pmUA.

  10. It will be interesting to see how reliable Frontier are to sustain their CLE schedules. I used to fly their Denver – Akron flights, which started at one daily service; grew to three; declined to two; and then they left CAK and showed up at CLE instead. Load factors for CAK seemed ok, so why change to CLE? If it was supposedly to chase yield, that has failed because their CLE prices are the same as what were their CAK prices. Fickle management?

    1. Probably the fact that Apple Vacations flying is from CLE rather than CAK. So most of the air time to and from CLE is charter flying for F9.

    2. There were two good reasons for Frontier leaving CAK – (i) Southwest had started DEN-CAK and , (ii) Frontier had to have an aircraft at CLE for the flights to CUN and PUJ and being at CLE saved an expensive repo. The CUN/PUJ flights are not just Apple charter – they are scheduled Frontier as well, bookable on the Frontier website.

      Yes, Frontier presently flies DEN-CLE 5 times a week, but what Cranky missed is that the number more than doubles this sumer, to 13 x weekly.

      1. And now, of course, we see Frontier adding another 6 routes at CLE and the already announced CLE-MCO going from 4 x weekly to 6 x weekly.

  11. Ua is a joke since being taken over by Co. Never fly out of a smaller airport in the afternoon, especially to ewr, u have a 50% chance of your flt being delayed. Then the people your going to deal with are not even employees of UA. This airline Doesn’t care for the passenger, but the bottom line which they are still failing at.

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