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Of Changing Airline Business Models & Urban Economics

As the economy is finally emerging what looks to be a period of sustainable growth, it’s interesting to take stock of the last few years, and see how the recession and upheaval of the last few years has affected a variety of industries, and the consequences that these changes have for society as a whole. The airline industry is one that’s particularly fascinating to think about in this regard, since it seems to have been permanently changed in a way that other industries haven’t. We’re curious to think about how some of these changes will affect the economic growth in larger and smaller cities throughout North America.

Broadly speaking, there are two dominant business models within the airline industry: 1) the hub-and-spoke model, utilized by American Airlines, United, and most of the flagship carriers of foreign countries; and 2) the “low-cost-carrier” or point-to-point model, favored by Southwest, RyanAir and others. The hub-and-spoke model requires aggregating passengers from smaller second-tier “spoke” airpports (say, Philadelphia, St. Louis, etc) at a larger hub airport (e.g. Chicago’s O’Hare, Heathrow) and in order to fly passengers to a similarly large hub. In general, hub-and-spokes usually break-even or take a small loss on at least some of the spoke-to-hub flights in order to maximize the the profits they can create on the lucrative hub-to-hub flights. Airlines can charge a premium—especially on business class and above—on some hub-to-hub cross-continent routes, and especially on some transatlantic or transpacific routes: hence, these routes are disproportionately important to a hub-and-spoke. Furthermore, since the fixed costs associated with building a hub-and-spoke are so high—aircraft, gates, landing rights—they create a powerful barrier to entry for potential competitors, thereby limiting further limiting supply, and raising the premium an airline can charge on these routes. Contrastingly, point-to-point low cost carriers (LCCs) try to fly shorter distances between secondary airports (Chicago’s Midway, Love Field in Dallas) where landing rights are less expensive. Crucially, these airports are less congested, enabling LCCs to turnaround aircraft much more quickly than competitors, thereby allowing for more frequent flights, more efficient aircraft usage, and most importantly, increase the amount of revenue they can generate per each aircraft seat by getting x many more flights per year out of each plane. LCCs generate barriers to entry by locking up gate rights at the airports they operate in, thereby keeping particular carriers out. (We’d guess this is ultimately the challenge JetBlue will face vs. Southwest, since the latter has a dominant position at the lion’s share of good secondary airports in the US.)

The consequences of the recession within the airline industry has been to validate one type of business model in the airline industry—the point-to-point low-cost carrier business model—while largely invalidating the previously dominant hub-and-spoke model . While the hub-and-spoke model can create huge profits during boom years—and we agree that it eventually will, as soon as corporate travel spending picks up again—the aforementioned high fixed costs of the model mean that it racks up huge losses during a bust period. This means that the hub-and-spoke model bears greater risk for investors, and therefore has substantially higher capital costs than a well-run LCC, further cutting into profits. (Moreover, in a post 9/11 and post-SARS world, the international destinations served by a hub-and-spoke have a greater risk associated with them, translating into added security and insurance costs for hub-and-spoke carriers.) In contrast, while the LCC point-to-point model offers slightly lower margins (since these carriers offer lower prices than hub-and-spokes), the flexibility of this model, and the lower prices, mean that it thrives in boom years as well as bust years, making it a safer investment over the long-run.

As hub-and-spoke airlines climb out of recession, they’re trying to trim their high fixed costs by offering a “leaner” version of themselves. In a nutshell, what this generally means is that smaller regional cities—the feeders of the hub in the hub-and-spokes, e.g. places like Pittsburgh (Brad’s hometown), Edmonton (my hometown), or Clevelands of the world now have many less flights connecting them to hubs than they did previously. Since these hub airports tend to be located in larger cities, and offer gateways to other larger cities either domestically or abroad, one potential consequence of changes in the airline industry is to reduce the connectedness of smaller regional cities to major hubs in the overall world economy. In short, it makes them less cosmopolitan and less global.

Being less connected to the world and national economy, and being less cosmopolitan and less global has significant competitive ramifications for smaller cities. Economically, this means that cities have less access to capital , since most capital tends to be clustered in what University of Chicago sociologist and urban studies guru Saskia Sassen has termed the “global cities,” e.g. larger first or second tier cities—London, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Hong Kong. Less capital means less fuel for growth, and a less dynamic economy overall.

There are also economic disadvantages stemming from the cultural consequences to being less cosmopolitan and “worldly.” One result of removing some of the connections between a city like, say, Cleveland to that of New York, London, Paris or Tokyo is that smaller regional cities offer slightly less variation than their big city counterparts, making them less interesting on the whole. This lowered access to culture is far from trivial, if you subscribe to the Creative Class argument (which we do) proposed by Carnegie-Mellon economist Robert Florida, there’s a strong desire on the part of “knowledge workers” to locate in cities that offer greater cultural amenities and a dynamic environment. Knowledge workers—the computer programmers, consultants, analysts, venture capitalists and so forth—create and attract disproportionate amounts of wealth and capital, and therefore growth, and are therefore of pivotal importance to any city’s long-term future. For a small regional city, having less access to these workers only dims growth prospects.

So given that shifts in the airline industry seem likely to result in a new set of challenges for the economies of smaller regional cities, what should they do? While this is definitely a topic for another blog, we do have some high-level thoughts on the subject. One potential option would be for smaller regional cities to make the world come to them, either by playing up their unique resources (be they economic or cultural resources), to ensure that the world comes to them. For example, smaller cities like Austin, Portland or Vancouver have ensured that they’ve remained connected to the larger world either through adopting policies to develop or stress their cultural amenities (physical beauty and a vibrant downtown core in the case of Vancouver and Portland). An even more effective strategy for these smaller cities is to use the cultural amenities as a platform from which to drive future economic growth—coupling cultural policy that attracts knowledge workers with economic policy that encourages firms and workers to locate in a particular region. Austin, Texas is a case study in this regard, since it combines an eclectic local culture (South by Southwest) with a dynamic technology industry (Dell et al). In short, despite the fact that smaller cities will probably face a growing array of economic challenges, smart strategic planning can provide some templates for sustainable future growth.

Posted by Matt Percy | Permalink


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Does anyone know of an assessment of how many aircraft movements, passenger-hours, or gallons of fuel per year could be saved if we had real gate and slot competition so that point-to-point carriers had a fair chance to displace the hub monopolists? Thanks -- ABL

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