After a Dramatic Summer Pullback, American Builds Up in New York This Fall

There has been a great deal of discussion around American and its shrinking presence in New York. While some have chastised the airline for pulling back significantly over the years, I am not one of those people. Why fight a battle you have no chance of winning? Some saw this summer’s hefty pulldown at JFK a sign of further shrinking, but it’s not. A schedule change over the weekend shows that starting in November, American is ramping back up even beyond where it was before.

American can run 111 daily flights from JFK with the slots it has, but right now it’s only flying about 93. And that’s about to dip even further with cuts this summer in Raleigh/Durham, Boston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Why? There’s a publicly-stated reason, but I’m fairly certain there’s another underlying one as well.

The official reason is that there’s a runway re-build planned for this summer and it’s going to make for a really ugly operation. Last year The asphalt will be replaced with longer-lasting concrete, and there will be new high-speed taxiways to improve flow at the airport. But between now and November, it’s going to be a mess. So American asked for a waiver to temporarily park 27 slot pairs this summer to help relieve the congestion. The waiver was granted, and so the schedule has been pulled down.

This may sound strange to you. Why would American want to use fewer slots during the peak summer season? Well, that brings me to my second point. Anyone want to guess when the 737 MAX will fly again? Me neither. Using this slot waiver gives American a chance to reallocate those airplanes elsewhere to cover for the MAX grounding. American isn’t going to pull down rock-star hubs at Dallas/Fort Worth and Charlotte, so it’ll look toward where the under-performers are. This lets them free up capacity and keep the slots at JFK. Win-win for American… (if keeping slots at JFK counts as a “win.”)

But if you thought that this pulldown was going to be permanent, it’s not. Starting on November 21 when the construction is done, American is ramping up above where it was before.

Daily Flights From JFK To:Before the WaiverDuring WaiverStarting Nov 21

What does this tell us? Well, it says a couple of things. You’ll notice that a lot of the build-up is in hub markets. Those are about providing connectivity throughout the network. Further, unaffected by this pulldown and ramp up are American’s flights to primary business centers like LA, London, and Sao Paulo. American will continue to serve those routes since it’s important from a network perspective.

But the rest of the service is in smaller spokes where American has a decent local presence. And that confirms to me what I’ve always thought was American’s plan post-merger. These schedules are about New York as a destination, not as an origin.

Take Pittsburgh for example. American has a legacy in Pittsburgh (via US Airways) and has substantial service to all its hubs (except LA) and a couple other places (like Raleigh/Durham). Do New Yorkers care about having 4 flights a day from JFK to Pittsburgh? No. They can get to Pittsburgh on Delta or United, airlines with a much bigger presence in New York which are likely to garner more loyalty. But for those in Pittsburgh, having the 7 daily flights into LaGuardia and the 4 into JFK provides huge utility and likely helps American to get a stronger share of wallet from people in that city.

Or look at Cleveland. There is an easy day trip to be done with American’s schedule from Cleveland. But for New Yorkers? The first trip to Cleveland doesn’t go until mid-afternoon. I used to assume this was more about positioning for Transatlantic service, but there isn’t much of that left to speak of. It’s about serving Clevelanders.

Or look at Baltimore. Ok, nevermind. That one looks like purely like slot-squatting. But you get the point overall.

Is this the right way to serve New York? For American, it is. Past decisions about swapping slots can’t be revisited. American is destined to be a lowly-third tier carrier in New York. So it can just use those slots to help boost competitive advantage elsewhere. And when convenient, like this summer, it can apparently just not fly them.

As an industry observer, I just wish American would take a similar stance in LA. (As a local resident, however, I gladly welcome the plethora of low fares.)

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