ANALYSIS: Chicago airports continue to grow as global crossroads

Washington DC
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Chicago O’Hare International and Midway International airports have grown in 2014, with international capacity increasing at nearly double the clip of domestic capacity.

Capacity to Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East increased 8.4% to 491,378 seats primarily at O’Hare in September 2014 compared to a year earlier, Innovata FlightMaps Analytics data shows. Midway is primarily a domestic airport with select international flights to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico.

North American capacity at both airports grew just 4.7% to 4.23 million seats in September versus the same month in 2013, Innovata shows. This was also dominated by O’Hare, which is more than three-times larger than Midway.

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The growth was driven by a number of route and frequency additions. Emirates launched new daily nonstop service to O’Hare from Dubai on a Boeing 777-200 on 5 August, becoming the last of the major Gulf carriers to land in Chicago.

“We truly welcome this connection that will deepen the ties between two of the world's busiest airports in terms of commercial travel, with a combined traffic flow of approximately 133 million passengers in 2013," says Rosemarie Andolino, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, in a statement on the new flight.

Other significant additions include two more weekly frequencies for daily service to Vienna on Austrian Airlines in May, three more weekly frequencies for a total of 10 to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific Airways in August, and British Airways upgauged one of its two daily London Heathrow flights to a Boeing 747-400 with up to 345 seats from a Boeing 777-200 with up to 275 seats, Innovata shows.

Hometown United Airlines added new nonstops to Aruba, Edinburgh, Punta Cana and Shannon from O’Hare as it continued to streamline and optimise its route network during the year. It also discontinued service to Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Overall, the two Chicago airports saw a 5.1% increase to 4.72 million seats in September compared to a year earlier. O’Hare dominated this growth with a 6.6% increase in seats while Midway posted a modest 0.4% increase.

Both airports have seen modest changes to their route networks, as carriers added and dropped routes, and American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United continue to optimise their respective hubs in the city.


San Salvador, Atlantic City, San Juan, Punta Cana and Cancun led the growth in seat capacity on existing routes from Chicago O’Hare in September, Innovata shows.

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San Salvador and Cancun saw frequency increases. Avianca upped the number of weekly flights to San Salvador when it took over flights from Taca in November 2013 and United tripled its weekly flights to Cancun during the past year, Innovata shows.

Airlines added new service to Atlantic City, Punta Cana and San Juan. United began a new nonstop to Atlantic City and Punta Cana during the year, and JetBlue Airways and United both added new service to San Juan in November 2013.

O’Hare saw a net addition of 10 routes after five were discontinued in September compared to a year earlier. New destinations include Aruba (United), Bangor (United), Dubai (Emirates), Oakland (Spirit Airlines) and Shannon (United). Service was discontinued to Grand Cayman, Guatemala City, Kitchener, Thunder Bay and Watertown.

Routes to Albuquerque, El Paso, Marquette (Wisconsin), Norfolk and Toledo saw the biggest capacity cuts during the year ending in September, Innovata shows. Frequency was reduced or aircraft downgauged to Albuquerque, Marquette, Norfolk and Toledo by either American or United.

Capacity to El Paso fell after United discontinued the route, data shows. American maintained its service levels from September 2013 to this September.

The fastest growing airlines at O’Hare have little correlation to the routes that saw the most capacity change. Frontier Airlines leads the increases in seat capacity with a remarkable 202% jump this September. However, the ultra low-cost carrier’s growth is off a very low base of just one or two flights per week that increases to seven or eight per week with six-times weekly service to Washington Dulles from 15 September.

Air Berlin, Austrian, Cathay Pacific and Spirit also posted greater than 25% increases in seat capacity at O’Hare in September, Innovata shows. This is not including airlines like Avianca or Emirates that had no service to the airport a year earlier.

United maintained its position as the largest carrier at the airport with a 45.6% market share followed by American with a 33.7% share in September.


Growth at Midway on Chicago’s south side was very much a domestic affair in September. Cincinnati, Manistee (Michigan), Memphis, Salt Lake City and Washington National saw the largest seat capacity increases while Branson (Missouri), Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Spokane and Tucson the largest decreases, Innovata shows.

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Public Charters drove the growth to Cincinnati and Manistee. It launched five-times weekly service to Cincinnati on 30-seat Dornier 328Jets under the Ultimate Air Shuttle brand in July and increased weekly frequencies by a third to Manistee on 19-seat BAe Jetstream 32s under the Corporate Flight Management brand since last September.

Schedule changes at Midway’s dominant airline Southwest drove the capacity increases to Memphis, Salt Lake City and Washington National. The Dallas-based carrier launched new twice-daily service to Memphis in November 2013 and six-time daily service to Washington National in July, with the latter's schedule increasing to nine daily at the end of September. It added about one daily flight to Salt Lake City for up to three during the year.

Southwest was also behind the capacity decreases to Branson, St. Louis, Spokane and Tucson. The airline discontinued service to Branson in June, ended its seasonal service to Spokane earlier than last year on 8 September, and simply decreased frequency to both St. Louis and Tucson, Innovata shows.

Public charter airline Buzz Airways replaced Southwest on the Branson route with flights on 30-seat BAe Jetstream 41 aircraft. Southwest operated the route with Boeing 737 aircraft.

Sun Country Airlines cut its schedule between Midway and Minneapolis-St. Paul by more than half, driving the majority of the capacity decrease on the route. Delta Air Lines also decreased frequency slightly while Southwest slightly increased frequency, Innovata shows.

Midway airport lost nonstop service to Akron/Canton, Harrisburg, Jackson, Knoxville and Mexico City during the year ending in September. Most of these were due to network changes at Southwest, while Volaris moved its Mexico City flight to O’Hare in January.

Southwest increased its share of the market at Midway with a 2.5 percentage point increase to 87.8% of seats in September, Innovata shows. However, the majority of this came from a comparable decrease in seats on its subsidiary AirTran Airways, which will be completely integrated into Southwest by December.