A glance at a US airline network map today, compared with a few years ago, would show two interesting changes: hubs are slightly fewer in number, but the nature of the spokes has changed. They have often become longer, and some, especially those emanating from strategic hubs, have become thicker.
The reasons for this change lie in a return to the basic philosophy of the network value of the hub, coupled with the emergence of a paradigm-shifting new technology in the form of the new, larger, next-generation regional jet. The new aircraft – the Embraer 100-seat family now being introduced by JetBlue Airways, US Airways, Air Canada, United’s Express feeder network and others – are poised to bring about the most significant change to the geography of airlines since the 50-seat regional jet arrived on the scene in the early 1990s. And as the Bombardier family of regional jets grows, a new level of cabin comfort can be offered, as well as increased range.
Longer spokes mean that growing, competitive airports, such as those in the US heartland, can enjoy new choices of hubs and international gateways. For example, the Midwestern banking centre of Columbus, Ohio, now enjoys non-stop service to Salt Lake City on Delta Connection Embraer 170s.
Elsewhere, the western Canadian city of Calgary will enjoy its first-ever non-stop flights to the New York City area when Air Canada begins Embraer services to Newark in February, while the burgeoning Texas business and leisure centre of San Antonio now has an Embraer service to Washington Dulles on United Express. This is a notably long trip that is now made easier and one that links the city with a growing international gateway.
San Antonio is, of course, a prime example of how networks are growing and changing, and rightly so, because the city is the location of a major meeting of airport planners and airline route architects – the Network 2006 conference organised by Airline Business and hosted by the City of San Antonio’s Aviation Department.
This growing event – more than 200 delegates gathered at the March 2005 meeting in Sarasota – will bring together the men and women who make the decisions at fast-growing low-cost carriers, the resurgent network carriers and the buoyant regional players.
In keeping with San Antonio’s unique position as a gateway between the US Sun Belt and the booming travel and tourism markets of Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean, Network 2006 will showcase sessions on network expansion in these regions, which have become the latest battleground between legacy carriers such as United Airlines and low-cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines.
And in keeping with San Antonio’s position as a centre of commerce that serves both the southwestern USA, Mexico and Central America, Network 2006 plans to look at the emergence of strong Latin contenders in the low-fares sector and at the growing north-south flow of international traffic.
Network would not be complete without robust and animated debates about the continuing issues of airport/airline incentives, an authoritative and high-level view of the North American market, and vital discussions on a one-to-one basis between airline and airport planners – the face-to-face sessions where important relationships are forged and route development takes place. ■