American Airlines: massive flight cuts from St. Louis

| Enterprise Staff

Lambert-St Louis International Airport

Everyone was there. An all-out wedding in the center of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The entire family was present, smiling for group photos and dressed to the nines.

Everyone, that is, except sophomore Francis Aguillard.

Aguillard missed his cousin’s wedding because, at the time, there were no nonstop flights to New Orleans from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. That’s because New Orleans was one of 20 cities that lost all nonstop service from Lambert on American Airlines earlier this year because of massive flight cuts.

The cuts, which American announced in fall 2009 because of sinking revenues, left New Orleans and several other cities with no nonstop flights to and from St. Louis on any carrier. The time it would have taken Aguillard to get to New Orleans for the wedding through a connecting flight made the trip unfeasible.

“If you need to go for just a weekend, that’s when it really affects me,” Aguillard said. “It’s a little aggravating.”

Months later, students like Aguillard are still struggling to get around. Even though other carriers, such as Southwest Airlines, have added nonstop service from Lambert to some of the cities that American Airlines cut, students’ travel situations are still far from ideal, and other major cities remain with no nonstop service from Lambert at all.

Even with the nonstop routes that other airlines have backfilled, there are fewer departures from Lambert each day than there were before American’s cuts. Some of those markets offer only one flight per day, making it difficult—if not impossible—to get home quickly in the case of an emergency or family event.

Southwest Airlines stepped in to fill the gap in the market with one flight each day to New Orleans from Lambert about one month after American cut its service there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in time for Aguillard’s cousin’s wedding.

For Rachel Koren, a sophomore from New Orleans, having even just the one daily nonstop flight is crucial, even if it isn’t ideal.

“When I decided where I was going to college, it was a really big deal to my parents that I could get a direct flight from here,” Koren said. She now takes the lone daily Southwest flight when she can.

American Airlines was once Lambert’s largest carrier. The airline set up a hub at Lambert after buying Trans World Airlines and its St. Louis hub in 2001.

Tough times rolled around for the airline industry soon after, however; declines in the number of business passengers forced airlines to cut fares, making even full flights sometimes unprofitable. American went on to make a series of flight cuts at Lambert between 2003 and 2009.

With its most recent cuts, American has abandoned its hub in St. Louis, leaving huge sections of Concourse C deserted and Lambert airport with no hub at all.

Southwest has since emerged as the airport’s largest carrier in terms of daily flights and passengers. The carrier recently added nonstop flights to four markets that American’s cuts left with no nonstop service on any airline: New Orleans; Nashville, Tenn.; San Diego; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

Southwest’s flight additions have helped sophomore Ben Gregory of Nashville, but only to an extent. Southwest now offers one evening flight and one morning flight each day to Nashville. But he usually needs to wait to take the morning flight the day after he frees up to go home; he often has trouble catching the evening flight because of late classes and evening exams during finals.

“I could get home pretty easily with a connecting flight, but finding a direct flight is still pretty difficult,” Gregory said.

And for Gregory, connecting flights are an unpleasant alternative to nonstop flights. He has had layovers in places like Houston and Chicago, far out of Nashville’s way. “I had to fly north to go south, which is ridiculous,” Gregory said.

In addition to Southwest, other airlines have also come to the rescue, adding service to markets that otherwise would not have nonstop service to and from St. Louis on any airline. In February, United Airlines added one daily nonstop flight to San Francisco. Delta has also announced plans to add nonstop service to Raleigh-Durham on Nov. 1.

But American’s cuts have left numerous other markets, including major cities like San Antonio, Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Fla., without nonstop service on any carrier.

Airport spokesman Jeff Lea said the lack of nonstop flights to those cities could stay that way as long as Lambert doesn’t have a hub— though he’s happy that other airlines have filled some of the markets that American left.

“It’s not realistic to think we could backfill every single market because some of those are smaller-demand markets that only a hub might service,” Lea said.

Cliff Holekamp, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship in the Olin Business School, said the St. Louis area actually had an excess of air service back in Lambert’s hub days, with more flight traffic per resident than larger metropolitan areas.

Not anymore, Holekamp said. “We actually have lower volume now than all of the cities that are larger.” The flight cuts have reduced service at Lambert to a level that better reflects the local population, he said.

Lambert had about 3.5 million round-trip seats available per month and 35,000 departures per month back in 2001, according to statistics from the airport. Those numbers dropped by about half by mid-2008, to around 1.7 million round-trip seats and 19,000 departures per month.

Now with the most recent American flight cuts, the airport’s departures and round-trip spaces available have fallen again, to 1.4 million round-trip seats and 14,000 departures per month.

It’s not all bad news though, Holekamp said. “Fortunately, there are some silver linings, that we do see these airlines filling in some of the gaps that were left from the past,” he said.

Students see this silver lining as small. With fewer flights available to their home cities, their travel plans remain turbulent.

“You go when they say you go,” Gregory said.

See our previous coverage of this topic.

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