Max-ed Out

What happens, with consolidation, if we have half the hubs handling double the throughput?


Many of the North American airports are reaching their maximum capacity for efficient passenger and flight throughput. In fact, according to a study of Orbitz passenger figures and the FAA, airports in New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Honolulu and San Diego will see pre-Thanksgiving holiday-like congestion at least two times per week by 2016. That’s 30 to 46 percent more passengers than average now.

Traveling by air continues to be the norm—even though that requires getting to the airport well in advance of the flight departure to allow enough time to go through security. Even with everything one goes through before buckling up in the airplane seat, it still can be more convenient than the alternatives. Air travel in North America is especially vital, where other options of transport are not as prevalent as they are in Europe or other continents. Covering great distances by car is daunting, especially during seasons where weather can have an impact.

With this increased congestion comes longer security lines, delayed flights and increased passenger frustration, if airports are not able to expand in line with the growth.

This issue shares how overloaded airports in North Dakota are prepping for the future. And these airports offer executives and communities a clear preview of what their airports could very well face in the years to come.

Airline consolidation is one of the culprits. Not only is it going to hit passengers in their wallets, it’s going to hit them at the airport as well. Multiple hubs over many major carriers previously spread out passengers across North America. Now, with consolidation, we may well have half the hubs handling double the throughput.

Some legacy carriers have picked up a bit of point-to-point flying again, but the majority of their traffic is still funneled through their existing hubs; a situation that already puts a strain on those airports many times throughout the year.

How many of the airports in North America are actively planning for the future capacity situation? When I think about it, I wonder how many airports could have predicted 10 years ago, the U.S. carrier consolidation that’s happened over the past four years and the unfolding situation today?

Most of the airports I listed above are “hub-neutral”, meaning they are not currently dominated by one specific carrier. But that may make it more difficult for them to do longer-range strategic planning. Juggling the number of gates, slots and passenger through-put with multiple carriers can make a day negotiating at the United Nations look like a walk in the park.

Which means the relationship and communications between the airport and the airlines that serve it becomes more important than ever, in order to build the long-term strategy on both sides of the equation and to monitor its momentum.

While this planning needs to happen, the government hasn’t been helping the airports, either—Congress refuses to pass an increase to the PFCs for it to go above $4.50 a segment—a level that it has been parked at for many years. Finding adequate funding to expand and modify an airport then falls on the community and local development authorities.

Last month, I wrote about airports that were recycling themselves. These airports are adding to their infrastructure, but they won’t be able to alleviate the coming congestion until airlines other than the extremely low-cost carriers start using these facilities as viable alternatives to the larger airports.

So what will happen when the larger airports run out of room? There are only so many runways you can build–some airports already have multiple control towers, like Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. And where do we draw the line that a terminal becomes “too big”? Will the airlines be pressured to using these alternate airports because the current airports don’t have the room and/or the money to carry out the necessary expansion?

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