American Airlines Wants the Government to Give it an Extra Flight at Washington National Airport

With Sun Country ending service at Lansing, that means the end of non-stop service from Michigan’s capital to Washington National airport and indeed the end of non-stop service to the DC area and even the Northeast.

National airport is slot controlled, but Sun Country had an ‘exemption’ from slots for their flights rather than having their own slots. American Airlines is petitioning the FAA for a slot exemption so it can serve this market in Sun Country’s place, arguing that it’s an important market to preserve service in.

They propose American Eagle Bombardier CRJ-700 service:

    Lansing – Washington National, 710am – 855am
    Washington National – Lansing, 530pm – 720pm

(American seems to specialize in one flight a day from smaller markets departing in the morning and returning in the evening, that seems to be their entire domestic New York strategy for instance.)

American Airlines is the dominant carrier at National airport and could use its existing slots to serve the Lansing market (in lieu of other flights it currently operates). So it doesn’t need slot exemptions to operate the route per se. Although the opportunity cost of other flights may or may not make it uneconomical to serve Lansing. The only way for anyone other than American to know this would be to deny the exemption and see if American inaugurates service anyway.

When the federal government demanded that American divest itself of some of its slots at Washington National (basically not allowing the combined American and US Airways to grow larger than US Airways had been at the airport) as a condition for settling the suit against the merger, American warned that it would mean a reduction in service to small communities. That’s exactly what happened. They didn’t eliminate flights to Chicago, Dallas, Miami, or Los Angeles. Instead they eliminated service to Augusta; Fayetteville; Fort Walton Beach; Jacksonville North Carolina; Little Rock; Myrtle Beach; Omaha; Pensacola; Savannah; Tallahassee; and Wilmington North Carolina.

Lansing’s problem isn’t just that it’s a small city. American’s regulatory filing emphasizes just how important a city it is, not just because it’s Michigan’s state capitol but also because of the major corporations headquartered here (which almost wants to make me oppose Washington DC service — keep those companies away from Washington DC politicians and make it more cumbersome to seek handouts!).

Instead, Lansing’s problem is that it’s… close to Detroit. Only about 75 miles by air, it’s an hour and a half’s drive. So whereas American emphasizes the importance of a connection to an East Coast hub with connections up and down the Eastern seaboard, the airport has Chicago flights now which allow connections most anywhere. And yet American emphasizes that people choose to drive instead of flying. Contra American it’s unclear why that would change.

If Lansing is such an important market to connect to Washington, any airline can either use existing slots at National to do so or operate the flight to Washington Dulles (where United has a substantial connecting network).

In case you’re curious here’s American’s filing with the FAA (.pdf). This surprises me somewhat since the Department of Transportation administers slots beyond National Airport’s 1250 mile perimeter (the distance of non-stop flights from the airport is limited except for a handful of specific routes the DOT has awarded) so assumed that slot exemptions would have been DOT issues as well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Grand Rapids is even closer to Lansing and is served by many carriers. I should know because I had to drive from GRR to Detroit when a US Airways flight to PHL was delayed because of an equipment malfunction.

  2. Nate is exactly right. If you are on the west side of the Lansing area, then GRR is about 50-55 minutes, and has a good amount of service because it’s the 2nd biggest metro area in Michigan, and it has a lot more big business than Lansing. And if you are on the east side of Lansing, then DTW is only 1:15 away, and obviously has service pretty much everywhere in the world. So there is never going to be enough demand in Lansing itself with that much service that close to it.

  3. Actually, I often used to fly into Lansing to get to Grand Rapids just because Sun Country’s flights were a lot cheaper than anything else. Guess I’ll have to find another option . . .

  4. Gary, thanks for writing about this topic, this is extremely interesting to me. I routinely used Sun Country to fly between DCA and LAN to visit family. I even got the Sun Country visa card–the minimum spend was insignificant and 40k points went a LONG way given Sun Country’s pricing on this route. Flying from the A terminal of DCA and into LAN (which in its entirety is about as big as the A terminal), there was never any major concern about getting stuck in a long security line or having to wait to check baggage. The equipment was way nicer than what you would get on similar routes operated by regional airlines, and upgrades to first were really, really cheap for a while.

    …But I understand why it wouldn’t be economically feasible. Even Flint (FNT), which as a city routinely tops the nation in violent crime, somehow seems to get more routes (I don’t know if this is actually true, just my sense–especially if you leave out LAN flights connecting in DTW). If AA is successful in getting this exemption, I assume it will be way more expensive than what Sun Country offered. SC was able to double dip on a lot of overhead by stopping in Lansing on the way to DCA or MSP. Even with a smaller (godawful) aircraft, there’s no way AA could offer a similar value.

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