Effective tomorrow, March 29, American Airlines will be instituting a major schedule change at Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) airports, as it re-banks both hubs. In simple terms, “re-banking” means the process of placing groups of arriving and departing flights into “banks” of time windows. The theory is that connecting passengers can step off their inbound flight and right onto their connecting flight. In DFW’s case, the airline plans to operate ten distinct banks of flights. Six of those will be “directional”, meaning inbound flights from the east will connect to another bank of flights heading west, and vice versa. Four others will be a free-for-all, for lack of a better term. Those flights arrive and depart from any direction, presumably based on demand between specific city pairs.
If this sounds like a blast from the past, that’s because it is. One of American’s innovations was the “banked hub” concept in the 1980s. It proved so successful that most other major airlines copied it at their own hubs. Most airlines either abandoned or significantly unwound their banks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Largely, they found that spreading arrivals and departures more evenly throughout the day was a more efficient use of resources after the sharp schedule cuts of the 2000s.
Why the Airlines are Doing This
You might think that scrunching a ton of flights into a short time period would cost the airlines more money. Staffing levels need to increase to handle the increased loads during the peaks, after all. The theory, however, is that shorter connections entice customers to book more flights; thus, the increase in revenue more than offsets the costs. American has already been testing rebanking at its Miami (MIA) hub for the better part of a year. So far, the airline reports a high degree of success; the increased revenues from additional connecting passengers indeed outweighs the costs. The airline also reports no significant deterioration in operations or the customer experience.
In case you’re wondering where the “more revenue” idea comes from, the basic theory is to take advantage of the standard “price & schedule” algorithm inherent in most search engines. A flight search query lists a connecting pair with the shortest travel time first by default. If a potential customer sees a shorter total travel time, they’ll be more likely to choose that option. I also see this as a potential pitfall, though, as I’ll discuss later.
What This Means for Passengers
First and foremost, plan on shorter connecting time. Per the Dallas Morning News article linked to above, American expects connect times to reduce approximately 10 minutes on average. While that doesn’t sound like much, it is enough to possibly make a difference. For example, a connection shrinking from 65 to 55 minutes might mean not enough time to grab lunch. Or if your inbound flight is delayed a few minutes, the difference between a fast walk and a full-out sprint through the terminal to make your outbound connection.
More flights at specific times could also mean more passengers going through security and visiting ticket counters and airport concessions around those times. American and DFW officials say they plan to ramp up staffing to deal with the increase. Plus, they even plan to encourage concessionaires to, for example, stock more items in the “grab and go” counters. Where the TSA is concerned, though, who knows if they’ll have received the memo. If you’re originating at DFW, I’d plan on getting to the airport a little earlier, at least for the next few weeks, to get through security until everything shakes out. Also, expect baggage delivery times to lenghten, at least initially, as kinks work out of the system.
Most importantly, though – if you’ve previously booked flights with a connection through DFW or Chicago after March 29th, check for schedule changes. Some flights have been re-timed, with others eliminated entirely. My sister and her family connect through DFW on the way to Europe this summer; sure enough, their inbound from Memphis ended up canceled. American then stuck them with a 54-minute domestic-to-international connection. Though they were rather flippantly told that this was well over the minimum connecting time at DFW, just try doing that with 2 kids in tow and see how many yuks you end up with. After some back and forth, American eventually re-accommodated them on an earlier flight. Which is another important thing to remember. If you don’t like a schedule change, you can generally ask to change flights without a fee.
Why I Think This is a Bad Idea
I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I’m based out of DFW, and thus can get a nonstop pretty much anywhere. But while American has been spinning tighter connections as a “customer enhancement”, this seems like a questionable idea. Yes, it has worked for the most part at MIA. Plus, connecting in DFW isn’t the nightmare it used to be, thanks to the Skylink people mover system. The longest connection via the train only takes 10-12 minutes.
But DFW and O’Hare are very different airports than Miami. They operate more flights, for one, but the bigger issue, in my opinion, is that both airports are subject to significant weather issues, winter storms and summer thunderstorms at ORD, and thunderstorms almost year-round at DFW. Thunderstorms at DFW prove particularly vexing thanks to our crazy Texas weather patterns. These sometimes result in the phenomenon known as “training thunderstorms”, especially during spring and early summer severe weather events. This is where a cluster of t-storms forms near or over the airport, then sits and spins for several hours. The ensuing ground stops and collateral damage often cause chaos that takes until the next day to clear.
Why is this problematic for a banked hub? One, with more gates scheduled to be occupied during banked times, there will be less slack in the system in case of irregular operations caused by weather. In other words: prepare for more diversions, or the dreaded “we’re here but we’re going to have to hold short of the gate for a while because all gates are occupied” announcement from the captain upon landing. DFW worked hard to finally get rid of the penalty box problem for the most part. I’m afraid it’s going to return with fewer spare gates available when flights arrive and depart, though. Second, even without the issue of severe weather, tighter connections mean a higher chance of something going wrong if your inbound flight is even a few minutes late.
Personally, I really don’t want to stress over having to sprint through the airport to catch a connection when my inbound is running 15 minutes late (yes, I fully acknowledge this makes me a wuss). And thanks to fuller airplanes these days, if you can’t run fast enough, chances are, good luck without status. You might get stuck for a long while, possibly even overnight, because American rarely holds connections for late arrivals.
In short, a large airport with a history of weather issues doesn’t seem like a good place to try and tighten connections, but we’ll see how it works. Spring severe weather season is upon us, so we probably won’t have to wait long to see what happens in an IRRPOS situation. Beyond that, as I suggested earlier, a fair number of passengers booking these tight connections are just doing so because it’s the first option presented in a GDS or on AA.com, without understanding the risks involved. Admittedly, all carriers already do this. Who hasn’t seen the crazy 34 minute connection in Houston or 70 minute inter-terminal connection in Paris while searching for flights. But I suspect American will find that the costs incurred with dealing with these passengers when they complain is going to offset any incremental margins from selling extra tickets. Time will tell.