Changes are afoot at Delta Air Lines as it begins implementing its new fleet plan this year. It will begin replacing 50-seat regional jets with 76-seat Bombardier CRJ900s and 110-seat Boeing 717-200s during the second half, prompting what is expected to be significant route restructuring.
Beneficiaries of the changes are likely to include the Atlanta-based SkyTeam Alliance member's large global gateways at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airports, while it could be the death knell to its already shrinking hubs at Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International and Memphis International airports.
"Successfully restructure [the] domestic fleet and route system by reducing the 50-seat RJ [regional jet] footprint and upgauging with mainline fleet growth," says Richard Anderson, chief executive of Delta, on the airline's plans for 2013 in a letter to employees on 31 December 2012.
The airline will remove about 187 50-seat jets, based on the total at the end of September 2012, for a total of 125 by 2015 and replace them with 70 CRJ900s and 88 717s. Delta will take its first 717 from Southwest Airlines in August and deliveries of the CRJ900s are slated to begin in September. With those aircraft will come significant route changes.
Glen Hauenstein, executive vice-president of network planning and revenue management at Delta, summarised the coming changes using Birmingham (Alabama) to Memphis as an example during an investor day in December: "Most of those people are connecting on Memphis to other places. Now all of those cities are redundant to cities that are served nonstop out of Atlanta, where we also fly 50-seat RJs [regional jets] from Atlanta to Birmingham."
"We believe that by eliminating the 50-seat regional depth service to between Birmingham and Memphis and up gauging the Birmingham to Atlanta to be on medium size RJs or smaller narrow bodies like the 717s, we will be able to produce the products that's not only more appealing to our customer basebut its much more cost efficient for us to produce," he said.
Atlanta and Birmingham are about 530km (330 miles) apart and serve the same geographic region in the USA.
Delta ended service from Memphis to Birmingham and Jacksonville, Florida, and cut frequencies to eight additional cities that were all served with 50-seat aircraft on 3 January. The cuts resulted in the Tennessee airport having fewer than 100 departures on Delta for the first time since it merged with Northwest Airlines in 2010. Delta inherited the hub from Northwest.
The carrier will have cut capacity by nearly 60% to 211 million available seat kilometres (ASK) in Memphis by June since the same month in 2010, according to Flightglobal/Innovata data. The biggest cuts, or about 40% of capacity, occurred during the year ending this June.
Small regional jet flying is taking the biggest hit in Memphis. The number of departures operated by 50-seat jets fell by more than 72% while mainline departures were down by 50% from June 2010 to June 2013, according to Flightglobal/Innovata.
Cincinnati is another Delta hub that is feeling the pinch. Similar to Memphis, the airport serves the same geographic region as another one of the carrier's hubs - Detroit - which is 369km to the northeast and a much larger international gateway.
Capacity reductions at Cincinnati have been less pronounced than in Memphis since 2010. ASKs will be down 27.5% over the period to 331 million in June 2013, according to Flightglobal/Innovata. However, Delta has been cutting back at the hub since 2009.
Fifty-seat regional jet departures at Cincinnati have decreased by nearly 41% and mainline flying has fallen by about 25% during the same period, according to Flightglobal/Innovata.
Atlanta capacity was roughly flat and Detroit capacity up by about 4% between June 2010 and June 2013, according to Flightglobal/Innovata. Overall capacity at Delta increased by about 1% during the period.
"These will be lower frequency operations once [the fleet changes] occurs," says Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst with RW Mann & Company, on the future of Delta's Cincinnati and Memphis hubs. "It won't be the cliff drop analogy but it will be the slow frog in boiling water analogy."
Whether Delta plans to cut Cincinnati and Memphis as hubs altogether or keep them as focus cities is unclear. It is feasible that the airline will take the latter route considering its large local frequent flier bases in the cities and its willingness to establish and expand focus cities elsewhere in the USA.
For example, Delta operates small focus cities in Raleigh-Durham with 1,504 departures and Seattle-Tacoma with 1,168 departures scheduled for June 2013, according to Flightglobal/Innovata. Prior to the Northwest merger the cities were simply spokes in its route network.
By comparison, Cincinnati has 3,106 departures and Memphis has 2,421 departures scheduled during the same month.
Delta's plans for Cincinnati and Memphis will become more apparent as the year progresses but, regardless of what it ultimately decides to do with its operations in the cities, more cuts are undoubtedly on the way.