Choke points

Escape From Hell: You Will Never Have to Land in a Hub Airport Again

The worst idea ever inflicted on air travelers is doomed—by a disruptive new wave of jets and airlines. And it’s about time.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Hub airports are, hopefully, the closest most of us will ever get to purgatory. They are giant diabolical machines that heighten the stress of what is already a naturally stressful experience, flying. None of the great railway terminals was ever this chaotic and so full of abrasive encounters—indeed, in the whole history of modern travel the hub airport has no equal as a deliberate impediment to comfort and ease of movement.

And it now seems that its time has passed. It won’t disappear overnight, but it is, for sure, in the early stages of a slow death—thanks largely to the arrival of a new generation of jets.

To begin with, the hub was never intended to be for the convenience of people—that is, unless you are nuts enough to consider corporations as people, because the hub was created and exists only for the convenience of the airline companies.

The concept first took hold in the wake of airline deregulation 40 years ago, when the Civil Aeronautics Board that fixed fares, routes, and schedules was abolished by the Carter administration.

In this instance “deregulation” is a misleading term, implying that airlines became unregulated. They remain heavily regulated, particularly for safety reasons, but “deregulation” was more like an anti-trust move, it broke up what had been an internationally sanctioned cartel in which prices were rigged and price-busting innovation was discouraged.

This did not exactly work out as intended—as a result a number of U.S. airlines went bust and there was subsequently a consolidation that has left us with a more stealthy form of cartel in which a “market rate” fixed by algorithms rather than people leads to mysteriously similar ticket prices on many routes across America.

The other unforeseen consequence was the agony of the hub.

As regional airlines like Eastern, Braniff, and Piedmont disappeared, more routes were captured by fewer airlines. Before long, it became obvious that if whole clusters of those routes could be funneled through a single mega-airport in which one airline was dominant the operations might be more rationally managed and competition discouraged or killed off. At least, that was the theory.

The theory was, to give it its full name, “hub-and-spoke.” For example, by funneling 30 flights (the spokes) into a hub and another 30 out an airline could offer 900 different route patterns using only 30 airplanes.

The idea was sold to passengers in the phrase, “Go from anywhere to everywhere.”

The trouble was that pretty soon passengers got wise to a different meaning: “To get there from here you first have to go somewhere else.”

Thus if you were flying on Delta, say, from Miami to San Diego, a five hour nonstop flight, you found yourself without that the nonstop option and, instead, routed via Atlanta Hartsfield, taking a journey that if the connection worked took 7 hours and 25 minutes.

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Note the caveat: “if the connection worked.” This addresses the inescapable flaw in the entire scheme. For the hub-and-spoke principle to work timing is critical.

By funneling 30 flights (the spokes) into a hub and another 30 out an airline could offer 900 different route patterns using only 30 airplanes.

Connections were based on the assumption of a guaranteed on-time arrival of the first flight leg. That also went for the baggage transfers from one airplane to another while, at the same time, passengers frequently had to make great treks through a terminal from one gate to another and often from one concourse to another.

That could involve a marathon. At St. Louis, to take one case, the distance between the farthest gate in Concourse B to the farthest gate in Concourse D was more than half a mile. Even using moving walkways and shuttle buses that could take up to 22 minutes.

And I haven’t yet included the weather in this equation.

Hubs are, of course, extremely vulnerable to ricochet effect: Bad weather in one part of the country can screw up the connections all over the rest of an airline’s network, with flights frequently delayed for hours. A monster hub like Chicago’s O’Hare, located where the winter weather can be particularly disruptive, easily becomes a traveler’s nightmare. Or, as in the case of the world’s largest hub, Atlanta Hartsfield, if you get a computer glitch the rolling effects can lead to days of cancellations.

For most of us flying in America, the hub is often inescapable. Only 40 percent of passengers using hubs are flying from one hub to another—in effect making a nonstop trip. The other 60 percent of passengers are connecting. With around 70 million domestic passengers passing through our airports every month that’s an awful lot of potential pain.

There was always an inherent weakness in the idea that hubs made flying more cost-efficient for the airlines. Flying two legs rather than one to get from one city to another consumes a lot more fuel than on a direct flight: The airplane has to take off and land twice, and these are the gas-gulping phases of a flight. It also involves double the staff time for gate handling and baggage handling.

Another increasingly harmful consequence of the hubs is that they are potent and gigantic carbon emissions bombs, concentrating road and aviation exhaust pollution, as well as noise pollution, often close to dense urban populations.

It was the high costs of operating through the hub system that was spotted by the man who can rightly be called the father of the budget airline. Herb Kelleher, a young lawyer in Texas, launched Southwest Airlines in 1971 with a flight from Dallas to San Antonio after the major established airlines lost a fight to kill the project at birth. 

Kelleher had three fundamental principles: avoid hubs, provide only direct flights between cities that lacked them, and operate only one type of airplane—the Boeing 737. Given that model, and a “no frills” service, Southwest could offer the cheapest fares.

But over and above his business model Kelleher had a fundamentally decent and civilized notion. He recognized that his competitors had compounded the stress of hubs by employing staff who were often as bad tempered as the passengers.

Kelleher said, “bad attitudes metastasize throughout your organization no matter where they are located” and he insisted that all his people, from the pilots to the gate staff, had good attitudes. It worked. For an unbroken run of 43 years Southwest was profitable as it steadily grew to become a fully national network, and is frequently ranked as one of the best companies to work for.

Southwest still avoids hubs, although it does operate “mega stations” with more than 200 flights a day where crew changes occur, including Chicago Midway, Baltimore, and Las Vegas. (This can cause hub-type problems when delays at the base airports bounce through the rest of the route system.)

JetBlue and other budget airlines across the world have successfully emulated much of the Southwest formula and avoided hubs but now there is a new reason why the logic of the hub is under threat.

Budget airlines basically adopted either the Boeing 737 or, like JetBlue, the rival Airbus A320. They carry between 150 and 220 seats. Cities too small to fill that number of seats, if they had airline service at all, were confined to the smaller, slower, and noisier turboprops.

That choice will change rapidly over the next few years.

New small jets with between 80 and 120 seats will bring the comfort and speed of the larger jets as well as much lower fuel costs to more and more cities. These new jets will also have longer range, and that means that smaller cities that are long distances apart—say, for example, Savannah, Georgia, and Santa Barbara, California—will suddenly be a viable choice for direct flights. That kind of pairing could be repeated many times over without ever involving a hub.

New small jets with between 80 and 120 seats will bring the comfort and speed of the larger jets as well as much lower fuel costs to more and more cities.

Just how promising this new market is has been indicated by the response of the duopoly of the world’s two largest airplane makers, Boeing and Airbus. Neither of them produces jets of this size, but both are getting involved with two companies that do.

The Canadian company Bombardier produces the CS300, a highly advanced jet that so rattled Boeing that they sought a U.S. government action to impose a massive tariff on any sold to U.S. airlines, on the basis that the program was subsidized by the Canadian government. That move backfired badly. The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled against the tariffs—and, ensuring the future of the jet, Airbus took a 50.1 percent majority holding in the CS300 program.

The other slightly smaller competitor is the Brazilian Embraer E2, an upgrade of the company’s ubiquitous E jets, with the same fuel efficiencies as the CS300. Boeing is entering a partnership with Embraer that will greatly help to sell the jets across the globe—the total market for these mini-jets is estimated at 6,000 over the next 20 years.

Once those jets reach the airlines they will have the same hub-killing effect in the rest of the world as here. Given the choice of flying a straight line from A to B instead of having to change airplanes on the way is a no-brainer in any language. And that choice is also becoming more and more available for long-haul international flights.

The most spectacular harbinger of this is the Australian airline Qantas. They just inaugurated the first nonstop flights between Perth and London. This is a real time zone mind masher: On the westbound flights you leave Perth at 6:45 p.m. and arrive at Heathrow at 5:20 a.m. the same day, with a total of 17 hours in the air.

The physical effects of this are ameliorated by the improved cabin climate on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that flies the route: less dry air and more individual control of the lighting. But even this record distance for a nonstop flight will soon be beaten by Singapore Airlines with a 19-hour flight between New York and Singapore, using the Airbus A350 with similarly improved cabin climate.

There is also a greatly increasing choice of city-to-city nonstops across the Atlantic. The low-cost airline Norwegian Air now flies the Dreamliner from 12 U.S. cities to Europe with one-way fares as low as $229 on its latest route from Los Angeles to Madrid and Milan. Its novel city pairings include Stockholm to Oakland, California, and Oslo to Las Vegas.

Norwegian’s innovative routes have got the attention (and concern) of the European airline conglomerate, the International Airlines Group, parent of British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, and Vueling. They have just launched a rival low-price airline, Level, beginning with direct flights between Barcelona and Boston and Barcelona and Oakland, with more flights to follow between New York Newark and Paris.

These are all what are called the “horizontal routes” between Europe, Asia, and North America. But a similar pattern is beginning with the “vertical routes”—flights between South America and the U.S., and is bound to grow.

This November the Brazilian airline GOL begins new nonstop flights from the capital, Brasilia, and from the coastal city of Fortaleza, to Miami and Orlando, a distance of up to 3,778 miles, equal to crossing the Atlantic. This has been made possible by a new long-range version of the Boeing 737, and will be the longest route ever flown by 737s.

The hub airports were conceived in a different age, when jets were relatively unrefined gas-guzzlers. There were also a lot fewer people flying—Airbus has estimated that the global number of airline passengers doubles every 15 years, and there is no way that big city hubs can—or should—handle that volume of flights. Moreover, since more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, the idea that flights should continue to be fed into a handful of airports in capital cities and large metropolitan areas defies reason—and geography. It just doesn’t fly anymore.