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.

American
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
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.

Delta
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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40 Responses to Airlines Had a Ton of Late Night Flights Last Night That Don’t Normally Operate

  1. CP says:

    Really enjoyed this. Some of those arrival times are brutal! But, hey, I bet they were some pretty full airplanes, and perhaps the public appreciated either the long time at home or the cheaper fare compared to a Sunday morning or afternoon departure. Seems pretty smart.

  2. Bgriff says:

    Delta tends to bulk up at peak times more by up-gauging flights and dropping international widebodies onto domestic routes, rather than adding frequencies. Not sure how much of that happened this time around.

    And to your point about feasibility, I assume part of the rationale is that with so many flights operating so full throughout the day, the additional bank also allows additional re-booking opportunities for missed connections earlier in the day, so even if the airline only sells half of the tickets, there’s a good chance the flights end up going out full. (Surely, Delta would explain that since they are operationally perfect, they have no need for such a thing.)

    • Bgriff – The other guys tend to do selective upgauging when they can as well. Certainly makes sense.

      I don’t think they consider passenger reaccomm in something like this. If they really were concerned about that, they wouldn’t bother booking flights to such high load factors in the first place. This is about revenue and not customer service.

  3. A says:

    That’s an impressive amount of red eyes last night. My question is some of those planes went to places these airlines probably don’t run that much service to on a normal schedule. Assuming they didn’t ferry any planes back to the hubs how long does it take for them to realign the fleet to where it needs to be for a standard work week? One thing that always baffles me about the airline business is how they manage the logistics of planes. That’s one heck of a lot of chess pieces to manage.

    • A – Well, they vary their schedules so much by day now that it’s hard to know exactly without digging into aircraft routings. But it can’t take long. It’s possible they might have canceled a flight from the hub to the city today, so they’d use the aircraft to return a regularly scheduled flight. Or they could just add another segment elsewhere. It’s definitely complex, but they’ve figured out how to do it, I guess.

      • grichard says:

        I’d love to hear more details about that process, if you learn more about it. I imagine that the answer is some complicated optimization problem, with different “costs” assigned to having the airplanes in suboptimal locations… but I’m just guessing. Commercial software, or homegrown? Are crew lines baked into the optimization, or are they added after the planes’ routings are complete?

        Or if anything is published about this sort of process, I’d be interested in seeing the reference.

      • United’s post-Thanksgiving extra flying last year (www.gcmap.com/featured/20141130) offered examples of several strategies.

        One was DEN-SBN, a route not normally operated, which departed at 12:30 am and arrived at 5:00 am. This was funded by a 9:59 pm SBN-DEN which arrived at 10:59 pm. The two flights didn’t happen to be operated with the same aircraft, but could have been. Normally, the ERJ-145 which flew SBN-DEN would have flown ORD-SBN in the evening and then just sat overnight awaiting a morning return to ORD. There was demand for extra flights INTO those hubs, too, so the (somewhat) earlier extra flights into the hubs were probably pretty full.

        In other cases, UA swapped aircraft. During the winter months, UA’s 747-400s aren’t as heavily used and may sit for a while. On both Saturday and Sunday last year, UA added an extra flight in each direction between SFO and ORD using 747-400s, swapping aircraft which had what otherwise would have been long layovers. This may also have been what DL did with their 747 flying between hubs this Thanksgiving.

        I can’t find the data on it but I remember UA flying several extra LAX-DEN trips last year with the 787-9, which I think they funded by cancelling one day’s LAX-MEL trip. International flights to/from the US around the Thanksgiving holiday are light and with alternate routings available on LAX-MEL (via AKL on NZ) this would have made sense.

  4. Roberto says:

    Delta, was flying much larger airplanes over the weekend than what is normal. ATL-MSP and ATL-DTW were being flown on the 747 as an example.

  5. TC99 says:

    As a dispatcher for Supershuttle in Miami, we usually experience a lull between 11pm to 3 am in Miami, and all flights in by 1 am in FLL. We were kept busy all night Sunday to the point we were tripling up pickups back to the airport this morning. Also Spirit, JetBlue, and Allegiant had additional arrivals last night.

  6. JoEllen says:

    I wish the airlines would do this more frequently…..maybe not 7 days a week but 1, 2, or 3 nights a week. Planes are so full, I would bet a lot of people would welcome these times.

  7. Konstantin von Wedelstaedt says:

    I can imagine this is quite challenging for crew scheduling to get enough crews for all these extra flights. Definitely not a holiday weekend for airline crews.

    And a naive question from Europe, where many airports have night curfews – are most US airports open 24 hours?

    • haolenate says:

      Very few actually “close”. Some airports even lift slot restrictions.

      Airports like Orange County, Aspen, and Naples (Florida) may have restrictions to commercial flights between certain hours, or can curtail flights by having very specific noise restrictions in place. But for the most part, the FAA is big on “open access”, so airports just can’t close because they want to.

      Orange County, for example, has prohibitions on commercial flights from 11:59PM until 7:00AM except in irregular operations. Naples. however has noise limitations that means even the quietest of jets can’t land at night. Aspen, well, you don’t wanna hit a mountain.

  8. Seattle AAramprat says:

    Cranky thank you for telling me why my two easy days at work usually were a pain in the butt. Now it would be interesting to find out what all the weather did to these special holiday bank. I know last night we had at least three diversions (Two to PDX one ORD) when I left.

  9. Chicago Chris says:

    Great analysis, Cranky. Is it possible some of these were more repositioning flights for aircraft used during the day for tighter schedules?

    • Chicago Chris – Well, I think they look at the schedule holistically, so decisions made earlier in the day probably impacted what they flew later. But none of these are repositioning flights in the sense that the airplanes just needed to move somewhere else. They’d only do this if they saw a real revenue opportunity. (I assume.)

      • Mooge says:

        Regarding the routing of many (but not all) of these flights and aircraft on the last bank, at least in PHX, is that many of these planes get to the hub and then bounce right back to where they came from: BWI-PHX-BWI, IND-PHX-IND, and so on – so it seems to me that in some of these cases they’re just utilizing more the aircraft that otherwise would have Remained-Over-Night at those stations.

  10. PHLLAX says:

    United ran this both Saturday and Sunday nights.

  11. Ron says:

    What about Southwest?

  12. Chris says:

    Dear Cranky Flier — can you tell me what data source you use to find these flight schedules? I’d be interested in using something similar and I can never seem to find the right one.

  13. Andrew says:

    US Airways/AA has been doing that “midnight” bank at CLT for a few months now. It’s not every night, but it seems like it’s multiple times per week.

  14. AW says:

    How did this look on Saturday. It seems to me that this would be the more logical redeye if I didn’t want a bunch of cranky kids running around local schools on Monday morning. And how many consecutive days can you do this without risk of one day’s problem snowballing (no pun intended) forward day after day.

  15. Hawk says:

    The Cranky Flier | Airlines Had a Ton of Late Night Flights Last Night That

  16. David SF eastbay says:

    You read my mind with DL at ATL and answered the question with they normally have late flights to cities already.

    Airlines should look more at late flights in places they don’t normally have them. For the right price, people will leave/arrive at 3am. They already do in places like India and the middle east, so it’s not out of the question for a large city.

  17. Arcanum says:

    I understand how this improves the aircraft utilization, but where do they get the extra crews? Are there really that many extra pilots and FAs sitting around with nothing better to do, especially on a holiday weekend?

    • Mooge says:

      They’re planned for ahead of time like any other scheduled flight, so the crews are generally aware of the trips they’ll be flying well beforehand.

    • CF says:

      JBoekhoud – Yep. Remember they also have reduced flying on Thursday/Friday so you have some people shifting, but as has been said, these are just lines that are built in advance and bid on like normal. Some crews are happy to pick up the extra hours.

  18. Mooge says:

    Thanks Cranky for doing a story on this, “FLEX” operations have been a big part of the PHX experience for years now.

    The other side of aligning capacity to demand is doing the opposite – reducing flight operations by an entire bank in the PM for what is known as reduced-ops or colloquially as “No-op” when demand is scant and doesn’t justify the operation of the last bank. PHX had somewhere around 130 scheduled FLEX nights this year, and perhaps a couple of dozen reduced-ops nights as well. During Summer, virtually every night runs the additional bank with the other consistent FLEX times being the week around Thanksgiving, the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s, and some in March during Spring Break. The reduced-ops nights happen typically on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the slower months.

    Reduced-ops nights allow the operation to catch-up on maintenance, housekeeping, and to save money by releasing staff early.

  19. Amy says:

    Oddly, or maybe just to me, lots of other smaller airports were the receivers of these flights, but not Albany NY (ALB). I wonder if thats because ALB has more WN flights than AA, DL, UN? And there are no Jet Blue flights here at all.

  20. Hey Cranky, Do you know if AS did any of this? If so they probably got royally screwed as SEA has weather delays last night..

    My OAK-SEA flight on Alaska Skywest got canceled, and we ended up staying the night at OAK and flying OAK-PDX-SEA with a layover of negative 1 minute per the schedule. Our OAK flight got into PDX 24 minutes early, and we hopped ontop standby for a SEA flight and made it. It was awesome.

    • CF says:

      Nick – I don’t think so. Alaska has a pretty late 11p bank as it is, and those operated, but I don’t think they did anything out of the norm.

    • John says:

      AS has always run red eyes north, at least. I’ve caught that 11:30p flight SEA to ANC more times than I like to think about. Including once on a 737-400 combi when my Continental flights got f*ed up out of FLL. Somehow talked my way onto that one even though AS and CO weren’t partners any more. Never so been so happy to spend 3 hours in a middle seat!

  21. I suspect AS has done this in the past.. One thanksgiving flight we bumped from a 737 to a newly schedule Q400 flight which boarded out of emergency exits at SEA. They had setup a make shift gate at them, which I suspect only lasted for the week or so.

  22. Regarding what United did last year, see http://www.gcmap.com/featured/20141130. Not exactly the same, but similar.

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