Winner - American Airlines

Award sponsor - Inmarsat

Two years ago, American Airlines began a bold experiment at its heavily congested Chicago O'Hare hub. After years of building ever-greater waves of connecting flights, American took the radical step of "depeaking". That meant attempting to smooth out the extremes of the peaks and troughs of the connecting banks to create a more manageable "rolling hub".

The experiment has since been extended to its home base at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and beyond, while other carriers too have eyed the initiative with growing interest.

The scale of the hubbing challenge is clear at DFW, for instance, where there were some 11 daily connecting banks, with as many as 50 aircraft arriving within 20-25min of each other and departing within a similar window 45min later.

Such a system provides a powerful array of connections, but also heavy penalties as flight and ground operations attempt to deal with the spikes of intense activity against the backdrop of mounting congestion.

In the wake of the 2001 crisis, American began to re-examine its entire operation under its turnaround plan, looking for ways to cut costs and become more efficient.

As part of that change, it set about tackling the growing operational issues at its main hubs, starting in spring 2002 with Chicago O'Hare, an airport long beset with rampant delays. The rolling hub concept was then rolled out at DFW the following November and most recently at Miami - gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America.

"With flights distributed more evenly throughout the day, we can operate more efficiently, so reducing our costs, while giving our customers better on-time dependability and more time to make their connections," says Henry Joyner, American's senior vice-president planning.

The benefits have clearly been many. The airline reports that schedule reliability has improved as "peak" congestion was lessened both on the tarmac and in the air at the busy hubs. There have been improvements too in both on-time performance and baggage handling.

There also has been a substantial improvement in labour efficiency through greater utilisation of ground staff throughout the day. American could reduce the number of ground staff required for the peaks. Productivity, measured by departures per employee, rose about 8% at Chicago and DFW.

The new strategy also reduced block times, lowering direct operating costs, including fuel and crew costs.

Overall, American estimates depeaking Chicago and DFW helped reduce annual costs by about $100 million in fuel, facilities and personnel.

Source: Flight Daily News