Delta Wants to Grow in Boston But This Isn’t Going to Look Like Seattle

With Delta’s recent ramp-up in Boston, there are rumors that the airline wants to do there what it’s already done in Seattle: build-up a big hub in a short period of time. If so, that means JetBlue has to prepare to do battle. There’s just one problem. I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Delta is driven by different motivations in Boston compared to Seattle.

Just looking at the timeline over the last few months, it’s easy to see why some think a brawl between Delta and JetBlue in Boston is coming.

So is this all-out war? Are JetBlue and Delta going to grow and fight for traffic the way Alaska and Delta do in Seattle? It won’t be the same.

After all, let’s remember that Seattle was all about international, at least at the beginning. Delta, seeing its Tokyo/Narita hub disappearing, wanted a West Coat hub to serve Asia. Seattle was the natural choice since the only airline there already was a primarily-domestic carrier that was also a Delta partner. Delta put international in, but it needed more feed than its partner, Alaska, could give. So it built up flying, and then it kept building… and turned Seattle into a full-blown hub. Its formerly-close partner is now barely a partner at all.

But Boston is different. Delta isn’t looking for an international hub there. It has a huge one just a couple hundred miles away at New York/JFK. Sure, it has Transatlantic flights from Boston to Amsterdam, London, and Paris, but those are Delta hubs. (At least, I consider a joint venture partner hub to be a Delta hub in a case like this.)

Could it be the opposite? Does Delta not really have any designs on Boston but it’s really just looking to fight JetBlue over its entrance into Atlanta? Nah, that would be nuts. JetBlue isn’t trying to build a focus city in Atlanta (at least not yet). It just wants to fly to its existing focus cities from there. Atlanta is an important market from Boston, and JetBlue wants to be able to provide people in Boston with everything they need. I’m sure Delta isn’t happy and will defend its turf vigorously, but it shouldn’t be a reason for Delta to retaliate with a big Boston build-up.

Delta Boston Routes

Instead, this is something in between. As is often the case, this is just Delta being opportunistic. Look at the map above and pay closer attention to the routes that Delta flies that don’t go to hubs. There’s Columbus, Indy, and Milwaukee in the Midwest. Richmond, Raleigh/Durham, and Myrtle Beach have service on the East Coast. The rest is leisure stuff to Bermuda and the Caribbean. Delta has long looked at growing in cities where services have shrunk, places like Raleigh/Durham or Milwaukee. Because of those kinds of moves, Delta has built up a good-sized presence in Boston in a piecemeal fashion.

Now we have more Boston routes that are still just opportunistic moves. This looks like a mix of corporate and leisure opportunity. San Francisco and Nashville? I bet there are corporate clients that wanted this. And the Caribbean spots? Those are places JetBlue only served seasonally up until now. So, good for Delta.

Of course there is some bickering going on here. JetBlue didn’t just happen to beef up San Francisco, Montego Bay, and St Thomas shortly after Delta announced service. It’s defending its turf, and it should. I mean, JetBlue is building up a 200-flight-a-day hub. This is no small operation, and JetBlue should defend it. There will be some stepping on toes, and there will be push back.

But should JetBlue be afraid that Delta is planning a Seattle-style attack? I don’t think so. This just seems different.

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33 Responses to Delta Wants to Grow in Boston But This Isn’t Going to Look Like Seattle

  1. Itami says:

    Compared to American and United, Delta has always been much more amenable to routes that don’t touch their hubs, whether in places like Boston or Raleigh or the various point-to-point markets in Florida. Why do you think that is, Cranky?

    • Mike says:

      It seems like most of the point-point DL flying touches larger southern markets or large midwest markets, which may be secondary, but are key to DL due to their massive ATL hub and the triangle created by MSP/DTW/CVG. They (and NW prior) seem to be extra protective of their local markets like IND and MKE and so it makes sense to connect those (plus other non-hub southern cities like RDU) to major cities like BOS. These nonstop flights to key business markets give DL leverage with corporations in the smaller/mid-size markets who otherwise have many many options for one-stop itineraries.

      • SDFDuck says:

        And then there are really weird ones like CLE-BDL. At least you could call stations like RDU and IND “Focus Cities”, but there are some routes DL flies that don’t even touch those.

        • Mike says:

          That’s a super random city pair – reminds me of USAir back when they had all kinds of point to point routes.

    • CF says:

      Itami – It’s just a general strategy. I know when the current American management team took over US Airways back in the day, they found a ton of non-hub routes that were just bleeding. So they cleaned it up and focused nearly everything on the hubs. At the same time, Delta is like a scavenger, watching the other big guys walk away and picking up the pieces.

      Some of this hearkens back to Northwest and its old heartland strategy where it tried to relevant in places like Milwaukee, Indy, etc. And some of it is just being on top of things and being willing to take a risk.

  2. SDFDuck says:

    Random, unrelated points:

    Hey Delta, remember way back when you used to serve SDF nonstop from BOS? The Louisville business community has been begging for that to come back.

    For what it’s worth, Delta has been calling BOS a “hub” for about a year now. If I’m not mistaken, the new service won’t push the number of BOS departures past CVG (which Delta doesn’t call a “hub” anymore, and barely acknowledges its presence).

    BOS – BNA now has three carriers going at it (WN/B6/DL).

  3. A says:

    I agree that this looks very much like DL is trying to pick up O/D traffic in and out of Boston which should have JetBlue concerned. As a retaliation they should put flights into MSP. With flights to ATL returning I believe this is the only remaining Delta hub without B6 service.

  4. Jon says:

    Certainly feels opportunistic — no Chicago, Toronto, DC, MIA ….

    • Josh G says:

      YYZ was around 2011-13. Now there is WS in the market.

      DCA was served on Shuttle/DCI equipment until the slot swap in 2012

      Never had ORD/MIA, but DL of course has long served FLL. It’s currently weekend/seasonal service around holiday season.

  5. James Burke says:

    WestJet is picking up a little for Delta in BOS too. DL’s code is on the Encore flights to YYZ and YHZ. The YYZ flights are kinda buried on the booking engine (15th after all the connecting options). DL dropped YHZ, and can still get some of that connecting business that gave up in LGA and then JFK on the daily Encore flight

  6. Bill from DC says:

    DL seems to do the most point to point, non-hub flying of the big 3. Most seems to be strategic buildup of lost service in dehubbed airports like MKE or CLE and business related gap filling in chronically underserved airports like RDU and CMH.

    I’m surprised to see so much leisure service. Do you think that is a function of aircraft utilization and cheap fuel? Surprised DL feels the need to duke it out on low yield Disney and Dominican type Southwest and Spirit runs.

  7. Bill from DC says:

    Didn’t B6 used to code share on AA flights from Boston to DCA? If so, guess that’s over.

  8. David SF eastbay says:

    Can DL really put energy into fighting both AS in Seattle and B6 in Boston?

  9. Eric says:

    I think you nailed it Cranky. The wordy term would be “focus city with some connection opportunities but not by design”. The Delta brand in BOS goes back 40 years when the station was a true hub inherited from Northeast. It was a status quo operation for 25 years until Leo Mullin kicked growth at his hometown airport into overdrive, maxing at about 200 DL/DLC a day. When Delta’s fortunes began to deteriorate post 9-11 they hacked back most regional flying, east coast business destinations, transcon and lots of Florida.

    That is the vacuum B6 saw and pounced on. The B6 map from BOS today looks allot like DLs in 1999.

    • Mike Power says:

      I think this is exactly right: B6 2016 looks almost exactly like DL 1998/99 with a few differences between Canada and the Caribbean. The new DL map, to me, looks a lot like DL chasing corporate business in finance, research and IT sectors plus Boston’s newest resident: GE. The glaring holes on the map (against BOS’ dominant businesses) are DC, Dallas, Philly, Chicago and San Diego. (Note DC and PHL are routes that DL operated since it brought Northeast and DFW since the early 80s) DL doesn’t have the slots to make DCA competitive against American’s Shuttle and JetBlue’s high frequency operation; ditto for Chicago and Philly although without capacity constraints and same-day Philly trip fares north of $500 might make this route appealing; San Diego is long and thin but has strong bio-tech demand that might justify a once-per day trip; and Dallas still has some DL loyalists to make twice a day back and forth worth it.

  10. Kilroy says:

    RDU, SFO, and SEA are tech shuttle routes. Surprised Delta hasn’t tried Austin or SJC as well.

    Interesting that outside of SFO, Delta is staying away from other airlines’ hubs… If they were really trying to build up BOS on business routes and not just being opportunistic, I would expect flights to DCA/Dulles, ORD/MDW, DFW/Love, CLT, MIA, and Houston.

    • Itami says:

      The yields would probably be very rough on those kinds of competitor hub routes. Even discounting the inevitable legacy retaliation (price matching to oblivion, launching ATL/DTW/MSP from BOS, etc.), places like Dallas and Chicago already see nonstop Boston service from JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit. And Delta would be at a disadvantage in those markets as a late mover in terms of muscling into corporate contracts for those routes.

  11. Tim Dunn says:

    Another great article as the basis for discussion

    Several people have nailed part of the story here but there are still a number of additional pieces that are missing.
    Delta is the product of a merger with Boston based Northeast Airlines in the 70s.
    BOS is one of several remaining major coastal airports where none of the three global carriers are dominant. Delta has a fairly large underused terminal at Boston that they have repeatedly asked Massport to include an FIS. BOS already is very short of int’l gates and the shortage will grow exponentially as low cost carriers including B6 add transatlantic service.
    All three global carriers including USAirways pulled back at Boston post 9/11.
    Delta’s pullback at BOS was accompanied by its buildup of JFK and LGA. Thirteen years ago DL and B6 had almost similar numbers of flights at JFK but DL is now larger at JFK in both flights and seats.
    Delta added 125 flights/day at LGA in two batches over three months as part of the slot swap with US including new routes into multiple competitor hubs.
    Delta has added dozens of flights at SEA over the past three years as well as dozens of flights at LAX. DL’s buildup at LGA, JFK, LAX and SEA has happened concurrently.
    Delta’s terminal expansion at LAX will allow further growth in the next few years while SEA will likely slow down. A window for expansion at BOS coincides well with the slower SEA growth until terminal facilities expand there.
    JetBlue’s is the most aggressive low cost carrier expansion in major Delta markets since the DL/NW merger. B6’s expansion affects DL on LGA BOS, 4 major routes from ATL, and transatlantic expansion.
    No one should underestimate DL’s capacity or willingness to expand BOS if they believe it is in their strategic interest in doing so. It is incongruent to say that B6 has a strategic need to grow in a number of major markets but DL should not or won’t have any reason to expand in Boston.
    Delta has requested additional gates at ORD for a significant expansion, says DL will expand at DFW and Love Field, and has just added routes from DEN to both LAX and SEA. Delta clearly sees a need to increase its presence in top industry markets and other carrier hubs of which BOS is just one.
    I don’t believe anyone should be surprised to see a large scale Delta expansion relative to the size of any of the three global carriers today at BOS over the next few years. It won’t take too many years of 10-15 new flights per day to 4-6 additional cities for the competitive balance at Boston to change fairly quickly.

  12. Dave says:

    Delta has tried – many times – to expand in BOS, and each time retracts. Several times pre-9/11 (most memorably, the original BOS-LHR, original BOS-LAX on 763s, from 2000-2001), which were both cut post-9/11. Since 9/11, even, BOS has been tagged a focus city, only to be cut. I don’t see why this time would be any different. At the first economic downturn, it will be all gone, leaving the hub routes, LGA, Sat-only MCO service, and a few random DLX flights to RDU and such. Sadly, DL basically gave the BOS-FL routes to B6. DL used to be *the* preferred carrier to FL from BOS, but instead of competing, they gave in. I don’t see them gaining much back at this point. BOS is very loyal to B6 – the city has never had a true hub, and residents can now fly nonstop on one carrier to dozens more destinations than ever before. While I love competition, I don’t see this going too far or lasting very long.

    • Tim Dunn says:

      Delta never flew BOS LHR before its current service which was started as part of the AA-BA divestitures. It did fly Boston to London Gatwick.
      Delta can focus on growing BOS now because its east coast position as the largest carrier at LGA and JFK has been established while WN added Atlanta and then downsized the number of flights and markets

      Delta took almost 25 years after the Western merger and the subsequent pulldown to refocus on LAX and the west coast but DL is now the second largest carrier at LAX and larger on the west coast both in absolute size and relative to other legacy carriers than it ever has been.

      Delta has the financial bandwidth to grow Boston now, there are ample strategic reasons why DL needs to focus on BOS, DL’s NE growth will slow after a decade of aggressive growth in NYC which makes growing BOS a strategic match to NYC, and history shows that DL has picked its competitive battles carefully but then slowly but certainly built to achieve its goals.

      No one should be surprised if Delta becomes much larger at Boston and that the growth announced so far is repeated over several years in major industry markets, some of which DL has previously flown but many of which it has not.

  13. Jantmass says:

    Part of Delta’s “giving in” to jetBlue was the tax break jetBlue got from the State of Florida on jet fuel. Delta couldn’t compete on cost so scaled back. The tax breaks are going away in 2018. http://floridapolitics.com/archives/205369-jet-fuel-tax-changes-set-become-law-july-1-pending-rick-scotts-signature

  14. Steve says:

    Cranky, I think you’re wrong. DL is just about maxed out in SEA. It wouldn’t surprise me at all for them to have the same plan for BOS that they had in SEA. It’s their desire for domination in every hub…ATL, DTW, MSP, LAX, SEA and now BOS. They’ve got money to burn in LA, SEA and BOS to pull it all off simultaneously.

  15. I think there IS an international angle to this story. JetBlue is apparently planning long haul to Europe with the A321LR, and Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris are rumored to be on their radar. Two of these are Delta/SkyTeam hubs. PLUS: JetBlue offer long haul to Europe already with code share partners Lufthansa or Brussels Airlines (both Star Alliance). When I Google flights from my home town CLT to the UK, I often get offered JetBlue flights bookable directly from the JetBlue website.

    https://skift.com/2016/09/19/jetblue-thinks-bigger-planes-as-it-considers-longer-flights/

  16. Phil says:

    Let’s not forget that DL has some serious money sunk into Terminal A at BOS.

    • Mike says:

      Was DL #1 at the time when Terminal A was built or was it AA or US? My memory on that is foggy.

      • Tim Dunn says:

        For the year ended 2nd quarter 2001 (just before 9/11) Delta had a 23% local passenger share in Boston to US’ 22%. Very close.
        Perhaps the bigger story in that vein is that NW didn’t do as much for DL in their merger as AA did for US.
        In 2010, Delta had fallen to second place with 16% passenger share behind B6’ 23% share but ahead of US’ 14% and AA’s 13% even though Delta still was larger than B6 based on local revenue.

        BOS is as much about who will be the leading legacy/global carrier in BOS as it is about LGA, ATL, and B6’ future transatlantic growth

  17. Tim Dunn says:

    an aviation chat site is reporting that Delta will start summer seasonal BOS-DUB service next May

  18. Adam H says:

    DUB is official and Skyteam member Air Europa has loaded 4 weekly MAD-BOS for Summer 2017 which DL will surely codeshare on.

  19. Ben H says:

    Delta just keeps adding routes out of Boston… Do these new routes still look like opportunistic moves? As Boston Turns…

    • CF says:

      Ben – It’s definitely starting to feel different, isn’t it? I still haven’t seen quite the onslaught we saw in Seattle, but it’s becoming more substantial.

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