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Raleigh-Durham, San Jose and Portland airports: Colourful pasts and hope for the future

16th March, 2010

Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St Louis airports were developed and then partly abandoned. In this review, we look at three smaller cities that had hopes raised and then dashed; but to quite different outcomes, and each with some hope for the future. The three are Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina (RDU), San Jose, California (SJC) and Portland, Oregon (PDX).

(1) Raleigh-Durham: Ups and downs, but positive outlook

Located in eastern North Carolina, Raleigh is part of the “Research Triangle” that also includes Durham and Chapel Hill. It is an area with strong educational institutions and, like Silicon Valley in California, has a reputation for research and innovation. Its location and business importance have drawn a number of airlines to focus on the city's airport (RDU).

American identified the city’s positive attributes and opened a hub in 1987, eventually replete with service to London, Paris and Bermuda. That lasted until 1996 when the challenge of USAir at Charlotte and Delta at Atlanta made the operation unsustainable. The major vestige of that era however lives on in the daily AA nonstop to Heathrow.

A succession of new entrant - and withdrawals

American's decision was also hastened by the 1995 arrival of the second incarnation of Midway Airlines (JI)—the first having been based in Chicago. Choosing RDU as its operational hub, it provided service to many cities along the eastern seaboard and temporarily dominated the airport. However, by 2003, that carrier had become an historical footnote.

Throughout the period, airlines came and went, including ValuJet, MetroJet and Independence Air. America West began flights to both Las Vegas and Phoenix but abandoned those routes when taken over by US Airways. Southwest arrived in 1999 and filled many of the gaps, and today provides the only nonstop service to the far west.

Raleigh-Durham airline services: 2000 and 2010

RDU to

2000

2010

Ashville

US

 

Atlanta

JI/DL/FL

DL/FL

Baltimore

WN/US

WN

Boston

JI/US/DL

AA/DL/B6

Charleston SC

JI/US

 

Charlotte

US

US

Chicago

AA/UA/WN

AA/UA/WN

Cincinnati

DL

DL

Cleveland

WN/CO

CO

Columbia SC

JI

 

Columbus

JI

 

Dallas

AA

AA

Denver

 

WN

Detroit

NW

DL

Ft. Lauderdale

JI

WN/B6

Greensport

JI/US

 

Hartford

JI

AA

Houston

CO

CO

Indianapolis

JI

YX

Jacksonville

JI

 

Las Vegas

 

WN

London

AA-LGW

AA-LHR

Knoxville

JI

 

Memphis

JI/NW

DL

Miami

AA

AA

Milwaukee

YX

 

Minneapolis

NW

DL

Myrtle Beach

JI

 

Nashville

AA/WN

WN

Newport News

JI

 

Newburgh

JI/US

 

New Orleans

JI

 

New York

JI/US/AA/CO

US/AA/DL/CO/B6

Norfolk

JI/US

 

Orlando

JI/DL/US/WN

WN

Ottawa

CP

 

Philadelphia

JI/US

US/WN

Phoenix

 

WN

Pittsburgh

US

US

Richmond

DL

 

Rochester

JI

 

St. Louis

TW

AA

Tampa

JI/US/WN

WN

Toronto

CP/AC

AC

Washington

JI/UA/US

US/AA/UA

West Palm

JI

 

Wilmington

JI

 

Traffic statistics have bounced about through all this airline coming and going, with the last 3 years showing the nationwide trend of fewer customers.

Raleigh-Durham Airport passenger movements (mill): 1985-2009

The capacity shares display a slight edge for Southwest but when looking at the primary destinations, American’s percentage reflects its presence in the important New York, Chicago, Boston and Dallas markets, three of which are AA connecting points.

The presence of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Nashville, all Southwest “focus” cities, would indicate that they, too, carry a great many connecting passengers to and from RDU. As was the case in St. Louis, the absence of nonstop service to much of the US has created a strong spoke for those carriers able to offer a comprehensive connecting pattern.

Raleigh-Durham Airport domestic capacity shares (%) by airline

Airline

Capacity share

Southwest Airlines

23.6%

American Airlines

21.3%

Delta Air Lines

20.8%

US Airways

16.4%

Continental Airlines

6.4%

United Airlines

5.3%

JetBlue Airways Corporation

3.2%

Airtran Airways

3.0%

Top 10 domestic destinations from Raleigh Durham Airport

Rank

City

1

New York

2

Atlanta

3

Philadelphia

4

Chicago

5

Charlotte

6

Washington

7

Baltimore

8

Dallas/Fort Worth

9

Boston

10

Nashville

While certainly not stung in the same manner as the big three, Pittsbugh, Cincinnati and St Louis, Raleigh has been a revolving door for airlines as they first love and then leave it. Despite the dramatic loss of nonstop destinations, down from 44 to 29, the past decade has seen only a modest drop in passengers as compared to, say, Pittsburgh.

Most noteworthy is the fact that the city has, in a time of increasing consolidation, been able to sustain its LHR service—a prize that many cities covet.

Antitrust immunity for BA/AA will benefit RDU and its citizens. This may well offer an opportunity for the airport to press its claims with the joint venture, to strengthen its position further.

(2) San Jose: An airport with spare capacity and potential upside

San Jose has been examined before in other contexts, but it, too, had a brief flirtation with hubbiness back in the 1990s. The buildup began in the late 1980s, following American’s acquisition of Air California, one of the many pre-deregulation startups that challenged the entrenched intrastate carrier, Pacific Southwest—PSA. AirCal, as it was known, like PSA, found the going tough after the US market was deregulated and their safe niche of oversight by Californian, rather than Federal regulators, was eliminated. Eventually all of these intrastate operators disappeared.

Southwest was not yet a strong player in the coastal market and American concluded that, unable to challenge United at SFO, it would establish itself as the dominant carrier in the booming Silicon Valley. Part of this plan involved the integration of yet another startup, Reno Air, as its surrogate operator for many of the shorthaul services. Reno became a participant in AAdvantage and American embarked on an expansion that included nonstops to major East Coast cities. American eventually took over Reno Air.

International service for Silicon Valley - cut short by 9/11

Internationally, the airline began daily service to Narita, hoping to lure the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs away from SFO service. This was an especially bold move given the fact that the introduction of the airline’s MD-11s was delayed by contractual problems with pilots, and the flight was inaugurated with DC-10s—for which the runway length and stage length were a challenge. Until the arrival of the MD-11, many flights operated via Oakland whose longer runway could accommodate the heavy DC-10s, making for a “first leg” of about 10 minutes.

The long-term plans included service to Paris and Taipei as well, but these routes never came to fruition as in the late 1990s the tech bubble burst and Silicon Valley firms fell on difficult times. The drawdown began and with a much-reduced presence, the Tokyo flight finally succumbed in 2006.

New infrastructure, unfortunate timing

During the growth period the airport management greatly expanded the field’s facilities by adding a new parallel runway—one of the few built in the US in past decades, as well as building new terminals to deal with growing passenger numbers. In a very unfortunate confluence of timings, the new runway was opened in August,  2001—just in time for the coming traffic implosion.

Looking back on the past decade, it is not so much the numeric loss of nonstop destinations for San Jose that stands out (down by 4 to 25) but the destinations and carriers involved. Washington and Boston are both gone and both legacy carriers have disappeared from the New York route.

The airport’s service is dominated by Southwest, as is Oakland’s.

San Jose airline services: 2000 and 2010

SJC to

2000

2010

Albuquerque

WN

 

Atlanta

DL

DL

Austin

AA

AS

Boise

AS

AS

Boston

AA

 

Burbank

WN

WN

Cabo

AS

 

Chicago

AA/UA

AA/WN

Dallas

AA

AA

Denver

UA

UA/F9/WN

Guadalajara

 

MX

Honolulu

 

HA

Houston

CO

CO

Kahului

 

AS

Kona

 

AS

Las Vegas

AA/WN/HP

WN

Los Angeles

AA/WN/UA

UA/AA/WN

Minneapolis

NW

DL

New York

AA/CO

B6

Ontario

WN

WN

Orange Co.

WN/AA

WN

Phoenix

WN/HP

US/WN

Portland

AS/AA/WN

AS/WN

Puerta Vallerta

AS

 

Reno

AA/WN

WN

Sacramento

 

AS

St. Louis

TW

 

Salt Lake

DL

DL/WN

San Diego

WN/AA

 

Santa Barbara

UA

UA

Seattle

AS/AA/WN

AS/WN

Tokyo

AA

 

Toronto

UA

 

Washington

UA

 

San Jose Airport domestic capacity shares (%) by airline

Airline

Capacity share

Southwest Airlines

61.2%

Alaska Airlines

9.3%

American Airlines

8.7%

United Airlines

5.7%

Delta Air Lines

4.5%

US Airways

4.5%

Continental Airlines

2.5%

Frontier Airlines Inc.

1.3%

Hawaiian Airlines

1.2%

JetBlue Airways Corporation

1.0%

Unlike St Louis and Raleigh, the top ten destinations are consistent with what one would expect from a second-tier airport—primarily regional flights, with only Denver and Dallas likely carrying a significant percentage of onwards passengers. Chicago, which has featured prominently on many lists, is absent.

Top 10 domestic destinations from San Jose Airport

Rank

City

1

Los Angeles

2

Phoenix

3

San Diego

4

Burbank

5

Las Vegas

6

Denver

7

Santa Ana

8

Seattle

9

Portland

10

Dallas/Fort Worth

Traffic slides, but San Francisco's congestion offers upside

The list of San Jose's primary destinations is similar to the display found in 1990, with intra-California and coastal cities representing the largest markets.

San Jose's moment of challenge to SFO has come and gone, and the near-term future of the airport is currently to once again be a regional addendum to SFO. Consistent international growth at SFO has helped that airport reclaim its gateway status for almost  all overseas travelers, with both OAK and SJC providing only limited international service, to points in Mexico.

The magnitude of the change is reflected in the steep traffic drops in 2008 and 2009 as the legacy carriers have steadily reduced their presence and increasing numbers of flights were converted to regional jets.

For the present, the picture looks grim, with limited upside. But there is cause for hope.

Just as SFO has usurped traffic that was moving to SJC, it is that very shift, and the possibility of gridlock at SFO with its too-close runways, that may eventually bring traffic back. San Francisco is operating with fixed capacity constraints that have no immediate solution, meaning that its resurrected popularity may also bring back the congestion that has been a feature of its past. The solution, as recommended by regional government, is to again revive both San Jose and Oakland as relievers for SFO.

San Jose Airport passenger movements (mill): 2002-2009

As air transport and the regional population continues to grow, the airport has potential for a resurgence in its future. If that day comes, the facilities and infrastructure will be in place. That new runway could prove after all to have been a good investment for the long term.

(3) Portland: Now consolidating a good mix of international and domestic

For decades, Portland, Oregon, the Rose City, was the smallest and least well known of the five big west coast urban centers. Starting in San Diego and passing through LA and San Francisco enroute to Seattle one encounters Portland. But as Californians fled steep housing prices and urban sprawl, many moved first to Seattle and then as that city also grew, discovered Portland.

From 1980 to 1990 the area’s population grew by almost 20% and the next decade saw a similar increase.

In the 1990s, Delta was shopping for another hub in the west to supplement its Salt Lake operation as the springboard for its expanded operations to Asia. San Francisco was dominated by United, and Seattle already had substantial service as well. Furthermore, as shown in the table below, much of the Portland (PDX) capacity was supplied by Alaska and Southwest, neither of which would have international aspirations.

Paving the way for international operations

As home to an increasing number of Asian-oriented businesses, Portland was eager to move to international status—promising to create a new Federal Inspection area within the facility to handle the traffic. So they built it, and Delta came with its MD-11s.

Delta also established a network to and from the city that would feed the international operations. Though already operating to Tokyo from LAX, the airline had high hopes for its PDX operations.

Portland Airport passenger and airline shares (%): 1996 to 2009

Year

Pax (mill)

Carrier Shares (%)

   

AS*

DL

WN

UA

1996

12.6

34.9

15.6

12.7

16.6

2000

13.8

35.2

13.3

14.9

15.6

2005

13.9

35.9

6.4

17.4

14.0

2006

14.0

34.1

5.7

18.3

12.9

2007

14.7

38.4

5.6

17.0

11.9

2008

14.3

34.8

7.1

19.2

10.9

2009

12.9

35.9

5.4

19.9

8.9

By 1996, Delta was operating a sizable share of the airport’s capacity and its only intercontinental flights. But that was the last year in which the operation showed promise. In 1997, the Asian economic crisis cut travel to the region and the international operations wound down. Like so many other locations, 9/11 turned a trend into a rout.

Portland airline services: 2000 and 2010

PDX to

2000

2010

Albuquerque

 

WN

Amsterdam

 

DL

Anchorage

TW/DL

AS

Atlanta

DL

DL

Boise

AS/WN

AS/WN

Boston

 

AS

Burbank

AS

AS

Calgary

 

AC

Chicago

UA/AA

UA/AS/WN

Cincinnati

DL

 

Corvalis

AS

 

Dallas

DL/AA

AA

Denver

UA/F9

UA/WM/YX

Detroit

NW

DL

Eugene

UA/AS

UA/AS

Eureka

UA/AS

 

Fresno

   

Honolulu

HA

HA/DL

Houston

CO

CO

Kahului

 

HA/AS

Klamath Falls

AS

UA

Las Vegas

AS/WN/DL

AS/WN

Long Beach

 

AS

Los Angeles

UA/AS

UA/AS/B6

Medford

AS

UA/AS

Minneapolis

NW

DL

Nagano

DL

 

New York

CO/DL

CO/DL/B6

North Bend

AS

 

Oakland

AS/WN

AS/WN

Ontario

AS

AS

Orange Co.

AS

AS

Orlando

 

AS

Palm Springs

AS

AS

Pasco

AS/UA

 

Pendleton

AS

 

Phoenix

HP/AS/WN

US/AS/WN

Redding

AS

 

Redmond

 

UA/AS

Reno

AS/UA

WN

Sacramento

AS/WN

WN

St. Louis

TW

 

Salt Lake

DL/WN

DL/WN

San Diego

AS

AS

San Francisco

UA/AS/WN

UA/AS/WN

San Jose

AA/AS/WN

AS/WN

Santa Rosa

 

AS

Spokane

AS/WN

AS/WN

Tokyo

DL

DL

Vancouver

AS/AC

AS/AC

Washington

UA

UA

Facilities and capacity offer room for growth. Just a matter of time?

This left the airport with a modern international facility, but few passengers. The airport and the city went in search of another tenant and finally, in 2003, Lufthansa began service from Frankfurt. For six years that link existed until it was terminated in 2009.

However, in 2008 Northwest had inaugurated service to KLM’s Amsterdam hub, making Lufthansa’s departure less problematic. And Asia was again accessible via a Northwest service to Tokyo. With the DL/NW merger, the Delta brand returned, providing both European and Asian access. From Amsterdam, connections to Europe, Africa and the Middle East were possible and Northwest’s formidable rights from Tokyo far exceeded the Delta reach of the 1990s.

Portland domestic capacity shares (%) by airline

Airline

Capacity share

Alaska Airlines

33.1%

Southwest Airlines

19.2%

United Airlines

14.3%

Delta Air Lines

11.5%

US Airways

6.9%

Continental Airlines

3.8%

JetBlue Airways Corporation

3.2%

American Airlines

2.3%

Hawaiian Airlines

2.1%

Frontier Airlines Inc.

2.1%

Airtran Airways

1.1%

Wings Of Alaska Seaport Airline

0.5%

Sharp Airlines

0.1%

The current list of players represents a healthy combination of legacy and new generation carriers, providing a full menu of domestic service. In a unique arrangement, Alaska codeshares with both American and Delta on many of its services. Alaska’s flight to Orlando, for instance, carries both a Delta and American flight number.

Top 10 domestic destinations from Portland Airport

Rank

City

1

Seattle

2

New York

3

Phoenix

4

Denver

5

Sacramento

6

Chicago

7

San Francisco

8

Oakland

9

Salt Lake City

10

San Jose

Portland's list of top 10 destinations presents an array of cities that have both O & D, as well as connection opportunities. In Jan-2010, domestic passengers were up slightly, while internationally, the number is down by almost a quarter, mostly due to the loss of a daily Lufthansa frequency.

Of the airports examined here, PDX, despite a tortuous journey, has come to a position that utilises its facilities and provides the community with a comprehensive air service network. For a city known for its flowers, its future looks well, rosy.

Some common themes and cause for optimism

The fragility of smaller airports with aspirations is well documented. Attracting international service is an admirable goal, but expansion usually entails infrastructure expense, so that the subsequent loss of an international operation can be very painful.

But, as infrastructure shortages become progressively more acute - as traffic growth returns - airports of the size of Raleigh-Durham, San Jose and Portland potentially offer attractive alternatives.

This is particularly true for West Coast airports with access to the expanding Asian markets. In 2009, intra-Asian travel numbers exceeded those of North America for the first time and the prospect of near-double digit annual growth in Asia over the nxt 20 years offers possibilities (and challenges) for American airport infrastructure.

Both San Jose and Portland are well positioned in this regard.

Meanwhile, Raleigh-Durham, while unlikely to share in that expansion, may be the beneficiary of a strengthened American Airlines-British Airways relationship, once they receive anti-trust immunity for their joint venture.

Any airport with annual throughput of around 10 million passengers is going to be susceptible to short-notice market responses by international operators. But the economic value of these services to their local community is such that the risks are worth confronting. In a turbulent marketplace, risks are unavoidable; while opportunities abound, they must however be actively sought out.

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