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American cites integration in 52 route growth spurt

American Airlines is adding 52 new routes and adding its Chicago-New York flights to its shuttle operation this year, in what it claims is its first truly integrated schedule.

"For the first time we can really start thinking about how we plan a single airline and not worry about the next integration milestone," says Vasu Raja, vice-president of network and schedule planning at the Oneworld Alliance carrier, referring to American's integration with US Airways since their December 2013 merger.

American announced eight new routes today, bringing the total to 52 in 2018. From 7 June, the airline will connect Charlotte to Panama City in Florida and South Bend; Chicago O'Hare to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton; Dallas/Fort Worth to Panama City in Florida and South Bend; and Philadelphia to Fort Wayne, Oklahoma City and Pensacola.

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The Fort Worth-based carrier has previously announced new routes to cities including Bozeman, Calgary, Flagstaff, Little Rock, Oakland, Savannah, Vancouver and Wilmington in North Carolina. They touch all of its domestic hubs but are more concentrated at Chicago O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth and Philadelphia.

Airport space is one factor that influenced where American will add new routes, says Raja. For example, the opening of a five-gate expansion of concourse L at Chicago O'Hare International airport this summer enables many of the new flights from the airport.

Conversely, the airline is limited on how much it can grow at Charlotte Douglas International airport as it already has the highest number of aircraft turns per gate of any of its hubs, he says. New gates at the airport will open in 2019, he adds.

American's integration with US Airways has occupied a significant amount of the airline's resources in recent years. Recent milestones include consolidating its pilots on a single flight operations system at the end of September 2016, and combining the two reservations systems in October 2015.

While no significant events occurred in 2017, American was able to dedicate more resources to planning as a single airline, to paraphrase Raja, and build on its existing network.

Almost all of the new routes are connecting the dots between cities it already serves.

The new American Shuttle branding on the airline's Chicago O'Hare-New York LaGuardia route will begin on 4 April. The change includes operating the flights from dedicated gates, having a dedicated check-in area and offer complementary beer and wine to all passengers on the flights, says Raja.

"Many New York customers are familiar with [the Shuttle product] and we thought it would be a great product" on the Chicago-New York route, he says. "This is in response to that."

Beyond those changes, American will continue to operate 15 flights every weekday on the route with 160-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft, as FlightGlobal schedules show it does today.

The rebranding is seen by many as more of cosmetic change by American. Robert Mann, an industry analyst with RW Mann & Company and former airline executive, calls the new moniker "another non-Shuttle shuttle; just more hourly reserved service from dedicated gates".

Delta Air Lines operates a shuttle operation between Chicago O'Hare and New York LaGuardia with up to 14 weekday flights on Embraer 170 and 175 aircraft, schedules show.

United Airlines operates up to 17 weekday flights between Chicago O'Hare and LaGuardia but does not call it a "shuttle".

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