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VOL. 133 | NO. 122 | Tuesday, June 19, 2018

MEM Grows Five Years After Delta De-Hub

By Bill Dries

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Five years after Delta Air Lines de-hubbed Memphis International Airport, the airport’s transition to most of its customers being origin and destination passengers has had mixed results in other ways.

There are about 75 flights a day at MEM, compared to more than 300 flights at the height of its time as a Delta hub – with most of the hub flights being connecting flights.

The math around what that means in passengers is tricky, because as Delta was cutting flights at Memphis on the way to dehubbing in 2013, smaller aircraft were being phased out in favor of larger jets.

SCOTT BROCKMAN

“Those 75 flights today … if you were to take that same number of flights with the number of seats we have today and put it into the schedule we had when had a hub that would be about the equivalent of 125 flights,” Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority president and CEO Scott Brockman said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“Most of our service was on aircraft that were 50 seats or less,” he said. “Now we have a lot of mainline jets.”

Also, fares that were perennially high - going back to the days of the Northwest Airlines hub that became the Delta hub when Delta bought Northwest - are lower because of an increase in origin and destination traffic.

“There were dis-incentivizing factors that were involved in it. The airfares were really high,” Brockman added. “The trade-off for those 91 nonstop destinations was high airfares. But you didn’t have to stop. … so that really kept the local people from wanting to fly very often.”

Those passengers often may not have known what airport or city they were in since they were making a connecting flight on their way somewhere else.

“Most of those planes came in, unloaded, reloaded and were gone in an hour. So it was a very quick operation,” Brockman said, citing the need for concessionaires that could serve a mass of people that came and went quickly.

“The terminal would go from very inactive to all of a sudden having 70 flights on the ground, 80 flights on ground – all emptying into this mass chaos of people,” he said. “And then everyone would get back in line again with very narrow corridors. … very few of them knew really what airport they were in.”

That has changed, although Brockman says the airport still has bursts of passengers despite a recent New York Times article that focused on how empty the airport is.

“The article was correct in a different time. It was correct five years ago. It’s certainly not correct today,” he said. “What’s ironic is the day that they were there we had already closed the B (concourse). … On the A concourse Delta had flights all going at the same time. Passengers were lined up not only in the A all the way up across the connector to the B checkpoint. The picture they showed was taken at the one gate … that wasn’t very active.”

The airport is preparing to break ground to consolidate the A and C concourses into a B concourse that Brockman and airport planners refer to as “Main Street” or “the spine.”

A and C won’t be demolished. They will go into a “soft mothballing,” which will leave the airport flexible for whatever the future may bring.

The airport authority originally wanted to build out all 42 gates on B at once. But when the authority consulted with the air carriers at MEM, the idea was vetoed because of uncertainty about what’s next for the airline industry.

The consolidation into the B concourse will be 23 gates, up to but not including the western leg of that, which is a second phase of an additional 18 to 19 gates depending on the size of the gates.

The project, which will include higher ceilings, a broader concourse and more natural light, has a total cost of $214 million.

Brockman said the B concourse could see a return to the passenger count of the days of the Delta hub.

“I honestly believe that the B concourse will easily get us … back to the numbers we had when the hub was truly rocking and rolling – which was about 6 million enplanements – 12 million passengers,” he said. “Then along the way we decide what happens to A and C. And we are talking to a number of different carriers. The challenge I have right now is with only building out those two sections of B – we only have six vacant gates. So let’s say we add some other carriers. We’re really running out of gates.”

Meanwhile, Brockman believes the consolidation of airlines that he views as “great for the airlines, not so great for passengers” is almost done.

“From the standpoint of Memphis, we still have growth that we can do. There are still markets we will get and add to our system,” he said. “I think there is an opportunity for us to look and capture back that 300- to 500-mile range of flights that used to be so well served by Northwest.”

“Behind the Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

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