Delta Drops Cincinnati, Nashville, and San Jose Focus Cities

Delta’s President reported told investors at Monday’s Raymond James conference that the airline will maintain Austin and Raleigh-Durham as focus cities, but will drop that status for Cincinnati, Nashville, and San Jose.

Cincinnati: From Delta Hero To Delta Zero

Cincinnati, of course, used to be a full-fledged hub but has declined in importance over the last dozen years. The CEO of the Cincinnati airport put on his happy face, declaring that it “remains a top 20 airport on the Delta network.” Delta no longer operates a pilot base at its former hub, either, and has only a satellite base for cabin crew.

According to Delta’s Senior Vice President of Network Planning, dropping the focus city moniker from Cincinnati means instead of serving the top 25 markets from the airport they’ll serve “the top 10 or top 15, it’s going to be the destinations that are relevant” and this ultimately depends on the return of business traffic. Among the cities not likely to return to Cincinnati would seem to be Austin; Baltimore; Charlotte; Chicago-O’Hare; Dallas-Fort Worth; New York-JFK; Hartford; Houston Intercontinental; Phoenix; Kansas City; Philadelphia; Raleigh; Seattle; San Francisco; St. Louis as well as Toronto and Paris.

Silicon Valley Remote Work And California Exodus Leaves Other Airlines To Compete For San Jose Scraps

San Jose travel is impacted by the ease with which Silicon Valley companies can work from home. With more workers remote, even when they return to business travel it may not be from their company’s home airport (and many companies are even leaving town).

This creates a strong opportunity for Alaska Airlines, and American should assist through their partnership because they have an opportunity to be suddenly more relevant in the Bay Area in a way they haven’t been in years. It’s an opportunity that’s somewhat diminished, but still potentially lucrative when business travel returns – and the reduced Delta sales presence makes it an opportunity to seize.

Isn’t Everyone Going To Nashville These Days, Though?

Nashville seems a curious choice as it’s the beneficiary of some of the exodus from California and the Northeast, a fantastic city with much of the same appeal as Austin but that hasn’t yet been bid up to the same degree. It’s a former American Airlines hub, though there’s significant Southwest competition.

Nashville Skyline

Delta Seems To Be Avoiding Competition

To date Delta has brought growth back primarily to its Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City hubs where they do not face significant competition. Los Angeles and New York have been heavily impacted by Covid-19 restrictions and face widespread competition from other airlines, and their Seattle and Boston hubs are competitive places as well – the former with Alaska Airlines bolstered by its American Airlines pact, and the latter with JetBlue bolstered by their new deal with American.

In Austin And Raleigh, Delta Sees Where The Puck Is Headed

Delta wants to be Wayne Gretzky, skating where the puck is going, not where it’s been. More tech has left San Jose than moved in, whether just down to Los Angeles or out to Texas.

Delta SkyClub Austin

Delta SkyClub Austin

Amazon, Oracle and Tesla have all made big moves in Austin over the past year, following growth by Facebook, Apple and Google. Samsung is expected to build a chip plant. Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, and James Van Der Beek have all declared Austin their new home.

Prior to the pandemic the Austin airport was among the fastest-growing in the country for several years, with high fares due to limited capacity. The airport grew its gate space by a third two years ago.

Barbara Jordan Terminal, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport

Austin has been the fastest-growth large metropolitan area in the country, but Raleigh is second.

Delta appears to be betting that the places growing fastest before the pandemic will maintain or accelerate their growth, as high cost areas (San Jose) slow down and legacy operations (Cincinnati) realign.

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. WOW! 1985 Delta opened CVG as a hub. Every segment in and out for three summer months was triple Medallion. This was before they had the Comair bus terminal. 97 miles from my home of IND but every flight I took went through CVG

  2. What was the extent of their options in SJC? As far I knew they only flew to LAS and their hubs from San Jose.

  3. Yes, CVG-SFO morning nonstop has recently vanished as they start to cut us off.

  4. Amazing, I date myself back to the days when CVG was bustling and a pretty busy hub for Delta. I even flew to Paris through there back then. Also, the terminal back in the 90’s and early 2000’s was very modern (at the time) and really nice for connections. I also recall in the 90’s that it was one of the first to have a real Starbucks. Sad to see this happen. Both CVG and CLE have fairly modern wings that were built for hub systems and that now lay virtually empty. PIT as well. There should be a story about these cities and how airlines have gutted the facilities that were built for them.

  5. I expect JetBlue to eventually displace them from RDU – it just makes too much sense for JB to make their own SE hub there to go against DL-ATL and AA-CLT. And AUS is a lost cause for DL. Any serious traveler in Austin will stick with AA or UA so they have convenient DFW and IAH backup hubs (respectively) if there’s no nonstop. AUS is just too far from DL hubs (SLC, MSP, DTW, ATL) leaving way too much of the country inconvenient from AUS on DL. And there’s intense SWA competition in AUS on top of that.

  6. What does a Delta “Focus City” really mean? When should a frequent traveler to/from a focus city be happy or disappointed?

  7. It’s Amazing not a single mention of Southwest owning San Jose , Nashville , and the biggest player in Austin! The strongest balance sheet !

  8. Other than CVG and RDU, the focus city designation is more about future intentions than published schedules.
    CVG is the only likely loser in all of this and the loss will likely be to other airline hubs – EWR, BWI, DEN, and ORD (driveable anyway) and maybe DCA; might be cities like LAS or SFO that are served seasonably but DL is competing from CVG to other airline hubs on a point to point basis often with regional jets.
    The reduction in DL’s regional jet fleet is as much of a driver in DL’s focus city strategies as DL’s profitability on those routes. There just won’t be near as many regional jets in DL’s fleet.
    RDU is already a true homegrown focus city and those that thought that DL would vacate it while B6 would grow will be mistaken. B6 can’t fly its schedule at JFK, BOS and FLL plus its announced growth at LAX, RDU, MIA and a bunch of other cities. They just don’t and won’t have the airplanes or the pockets to go after a half dozen new major growth initiatives in competitive markets. Their plans at RDU will fall.
    DL never flew to other than hubs and focus cities from BNA which doesn’t have enough gates right now. DL is building a large new SkyClub and still could launch a transatlantic flight. IND isn’t a focus city but got a TATL flight. PDX isn’t a focus city but has a TPAC and TATL flight.
    Doesn’t hurt that DL could be happy to let WN know that DL isn’t going to grow in BNA beyond its hubs and focus cities (still potentially 12 airports) while “encouraging” WN to stop returning to markets in ATL that they have pulled out of (SDF etc) while shrinking its national footprint (no more LAX, BOS etc). DL isn’t giving an inch in ATL. WN might do well to focus its SE growth on BNA.
    AUS is a growth market and every carrier wants a piece of it. If DL actually got more gates and can expand (as reported), the city has the potential to give DL a decent presence in a very fragmented market.
    DL would still be #3 behind WN and AS in SJC. The potential to grow even more in LAX while AA shrinks is far greater.
    MIA isn’t listed but still could become a significant operation after the Latam Joint Venture is approved. It makes far more sense to play small at MIA until the JV is approved and then grow afterwards.
    DL isn’t fleeing competition. It is picking markets where it makes sense to grow. Given that it is telling its pilots that it expects a significant rebuilding this summer, the chances are quite high that the focus cities DL is retaining plus its hubs will see growth over the next few years.

  9. I have been a Delta Diamond or Platinum for the last ten years. Delta is a great airline but, to me, it’s Achilles heel has been it’s overriding focus on profits and stock price.

    The biggest gains in market share happen in tough times and the American/Alaska/JetBlue partnerships are a big deal. I think Delta is hoping their high net promoter scores will maintain market share. I am not so sure.

    They should sell some stock and play some offense. Their recent gutting of their partner awards sure sure doesn’t help.

    I am moving to Miami. I hate the thought of American’s high density narrow bodies but I suspect they will be in my future as Delta doesn’t seem to want to invest much in the partnership with Latham in Miami.

  10. I like Austin, but, the traffic congestion in Austin is absolutely astonishing. It is something to behold and is up there with Los Angeles and Honolulu. The city is choking on traffic, the infrastructure is not fixable, and the city is slowly becoming unlivable. Sad, because Austin was kind of a cool town.

  11. Silicon Valley’s demise has been way overstated. Most people are just moving farther out, not out of state. DL will ramp up SJC with demand, especially when biz travel returns

  12. @Esquiar, people like Gary Leff let their hatred for California get in the way of facts. There is no massive outflow of people from California, as much as he wishes there were.

  13. BNA is especially surprising: quickly growing city and suburbs, centrally located to most of US population, relatively low cost airport operations, Amazon secondary headquarters in the process of adding thousands of new white collar jobs, massive upgrade to the airport currently in progress, relatively new Delta lounge and CLEAR lanes, etc. Odd strategic move for Delta, given that this would be the perfect time to expand rather than contract.

  14. Markj,
    I know the concept has all been blurred but US airlines ARE for-profit companies and becoming profitable again SHOULD be the first priority of all of them.
    American and United don’t even have the concept of focus cities – so Delta is doing something neither of the others do.
    Delta will develop Miami as part of the Latam joint venture but there is little need to jump into a Miami when American and JetBlue are knocking each other silly on sub $40 fares such as on MIA-LAX. AA and B6 don’t have a joint venture and can’t revenue share which is why they will be increasingly fighting with each other. Why would any competitor jump in? All of the gains from the summer seasonal, once daily markets that both have announced so far are more than overshadowed by the deep discounting that is going on in much larger markets.

    Since both AA and UA said pre-covid that they each had several hubs that underperformed financially, the drag on their finances to bring those back up to pre-covid size will be even larger, esp. since the amount of new capacity from B6 and WN has grown in AA and UA hub markets.

    AUS probably will choke on all of the new growth but it is coming anyway whether Silicon Valley is losing anything or not. Remember, Delta never operated anything other than to Delta hubs and focus cities (other than LAS) so SJC like BNA was more aspirational as a focus city than reality.

    And, again, focus cities for Delta heavily use 2 class regional jets. Delta has a plan to eliminate 50 passenger regional jets in a couple years which means some of those 2 cabin RJs will have to fly from DL hubs – which leaves less for focus cities. Delta right now has the lowest percentage of flights operated on regional jets of any of the big 4 that use them – AA, AS, DL or UA.

    BNA is an up and coming city but the airport won’t have enough gates for all of the airlines that want them now for another five years or more. CVG is not growing to the degree other cities are. SJC will grow at slower rates than it has and will still be dominated by WN followed by AS.

    and with about a dozen DL hubs and designated focus cities there is still enormous opportunity to grow Delta’s domestic network including into major competitor hubs.

    and Delta will once again be far stronger financially than AA and UA which will allow for growth. That is the way it has worked for DL for years.

  15. @ Esquair and Maria I think there are two things at play here and Gary is correct on both. This is coming form a 40 year resident of California who has made his living in tech the entire time.
    First off there IS a net negative migration in California. It is in the low single digits but the problem is the wealthier people are moving out since they are more mobile while poorer and less skilled people are staying.
    Secondly he touched on the work from home issue. This is the one that is going to crush business travel to Silicon Valley for years. It has been way to easy for the big tech companies to have people working remotely. It is a huge cost savings and has a net positive on the environment due to less traffic and travel. This is going to have at least a 10 year impact on business travel.

  16. OPM flying will be dead for a while in SJC.

    Time for the airlines to reshift their strategies there.

  17. “Prior to the pandemic the Austin airport was among the fastest-growing in the country for several years”

    So was Nashville… even a bit faster than AUS. In 2014, BNA had 5.40 M enplanements vs. 5.22 M at AUS. In 2019, it was 9.13 M in BNA and 8.68 M in AUS. BNA was on track to have more passenger traffic than HNL within a year or two and likely Midway not long after. And that doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon. WN has added quite a lot of destinations from BNA in the past year. A lot of WN’s newly-served airports this year had BNA has one of their first services. Had the pandemic not happened, BNA probably would have moved to FAA “large hub” status either last year or this year, with AUS following close behind. It may anyway once the final 2020 data becomes available. Indeed, it seems pretty likely that Nashville actually did pass HNL in 2020, given how hard Hawaii was hit (economically) by the pandemic. Even in December, HNL was practically a ghost town. A lot of HNL’s traffic had been from Asia, but all of those flights stopped in March.

    I suspect, though, that the difference has less to do with differences between growth prospects in AUS and BNA than it has to do with the huge Texas-shaped hole in Delta’s route network. From BNA, it’s a 35-minute jump to ATL and, pre-pandemic, that jump was made around hourly for most of the day. So, with BNA being 200 miles from Delta’s largest hub vs. 800 miles from AUS, it makes sense that adding more non-stops from AUS would be a higher priority for them. Same reason that DFW, IAH, and AUS got a lot of the early A220 routes. DL was trying not to become completely irrelevant in the 2nd most populous state where they’re currently a distant 4th. Honestly, AUS would probably be a good place for Delta to eventually try to develop at least a small hub to help cover their huge hole in connectivity in the South-Central part of the U.S.

    One downside to BNA from Delta’s perspective is probably yields, as Gary alluded to. WN has a huge presence at BNA. In the 8/2019 – 7/2020 year, WN had 53% market share at BNA. Delta was a distant #2 at 11%, having just recently passed AA who had 10.7%. Allegiant and Spirit have also entered the BNA market in the last few years (with Allegiant making it a focus city serving 33 destinations,) which I’m sure isn’t helping Delta’s yields, either.

  18. I’ll revise my statement on DL-AUS: I don’t think it works as a focus city with strong WN and AA competition, but DL does desperately need a Texas/South-central hub to fill a big hole in the geography of its hubs, and Austin is the obvious choice. The problem is the competition is so strong I’m not sure they can do it incrementally – they really need to “big bang” a 200+ flights/day hub there to get traction and zoom past AA and WN. With the pandemic they should have the spare planes and pilots to do it, but I doubt the gates are available. I wonder if they could create some temporary gates with a covered walkway on the tarmac similar to LGB?

  19. Delta management addressed local CVG employees after the announcement with NW. Their exact words were – ” Nothing in Cincinnati will change” . We can see how that played out. DL has been talking out of “both sides of their mouth” for many years now. I no longer (and haven’t for quite some time) believe ANYTHING they publicly say !

  20. It is worth noting that, for March 2021, Delta is the 2nd largest airline at AUS, has restored a higher percentage of pre-covid capacity than any other airline except Allegiant, and is flying all of its pre-covid routes and offers the most capacity in all of them except SEA but including BOS and LAX.

    If DL gained gates at AUS pre-covid which has been reported, the chances are high that DL can continue to grow faster than other airlines.

    Part of the problem w/ growing BNA and other fast-growing cities is that federal regulations require that airports provide gate space to new entrant airlines. BNA had virtually no growth capacity built into their master plan so ULCCs have taken the little growth capacity that existed on top of the gates that have to be taken out of service for construction. BNA is now proposing a temporary satellite terminal that will be connected to the rest of the terminal by busses. AUS could do that if they choose.

    Yes, Delta needs a bigger presence in Texas but it is still number 2 at both DFW and DAL in terms of capacity it is currently flying and there are still routes such as BOS and RDU which fit within their current hub structure but which they haven’t ever announced while DFW-SEA is back on the schedule. DL is scheduling A321s on DFW-LAX if that holds.

    No one is going to have a substantially larger operation at AUS than other airlines but if DL gets gates it could become as large as WN if not larger and its presence at all of the major Texas markets could be more than sufficient given the number of hubs and other focus cities that DL could serve.

  21. How exactly is AUS a focus city for Delta? I know they call it that, but wouldn’t it require some connecting traffic or non-hub/focus flights. I don’t see how IAH or DFW is really any less of a focus city.

  22. To date myself also I remember in the mid 90s when CVG may have been the 2nd largest hub for DL after ATL (between them and SLC) after DFW was deemphasized. Sad to see it go from a critical part of the DL route network to this.

  23. @Thomas – That was over a decade ago. Unfortunately it makes sense. They have chosen to concentrate on DTW and MSP. Why would CVG be needed? CVG, and CLE have both gotten the short end of the stick from these mergers. I would be really pissed if I were CLE. They built a whole terminal that has basically never been used. Stuart brings up a good point.

  24. Part of the real story on CVG is that Toyota has moved all of their managerial operations to either Detroit or Texas. The worries at the time of the NW merger in CVG were accurate, that hub made no sense given the distance to DTW and ATL. However the presence of Toyota drove demand for many point to point flights that were easily handled by Comair. Without Comair and the Toyota driven travel there is no longer a need to use CVG heavily

  25. In all of these comments, there is no mention of San Antonio (SAT). Given the size of the city, one would think it would be an attractive market for an airline, perhaps even a place to hub.

    DL does not serve it well – flights only to hubs of ATL & SLC, plus a couple of flights daily to DTW & MSP. San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the U.S., second largest in TX. Metropolitan area population is 2.5 million. It is larger than Austin. Yet, the air service here is pitiful.

    DL should set up a hub in SAT – to counter IAH and DFW. DL needs a southwest hub and SAT would be ideal.

  26. Ed: DL’s interest is in high-tech, high-growth cities with lots of high-income biz travelers that will pay a premium. You’re absolutely right San Antonio is larger, but it has much less of the flier demographic that DL is looking for than Austin. Sometimes I wonder if San Antonio and Austin could have gotten away with a mega-hub airport between them like DFW, but they’re just a bit too far apart.

  27. Delta management addressed local CVG employees after the announcement with NW. Their exact words were – ” Nothing in Cincinnati will change” .

    I bet they said the same thing in Memphis!

  28. I think DL’s decision on CVG is very short sited. Cincinnati and its surrounding areas are growing almost as fast since the start of the pandemic as some of the high-tech darlings. there is literally no housing stock left in the Cincinnati area. Real estate prices which were always very low and stable in Cincinnati a going through the roof and developers are fighting for prime properties to develop. Besides this, yes Toyotas manufacturing HQ moved away, but there were not too many employees employed. On the other hand, you have P&G, Kroger, GE Aviation, and many other Fortune 500 companies HQ in Cincinnati. Amazonsglobal and DHLs NA aviation hubs are at CVG and growing. Many tech companies are starting up in Cincinnati as downtown has become hip and incubators and accelerators are cranking out almost as many startups as the high tech darlings. The strong student base that used to flee the midwest after graduating is staying now. Some other airlines will recognize the potential. However, Delta still has a stranglehold on the main terminal, which they leverage to keep a competitor swoop in. It is going to be hard to use all my Delta miles going forward.

  29. @Shawn – Actually, the CLE concourse (Concourse D) you are referring to was used longer than not. It was opened in 1999 and used for CO regional aircraft & after UA/CO merger, UA used it for their regional flights until 2014. Even though it’s not used, UA has to pay The City of Cleveland over $1 million a month for the facility. The city aviation committee (CLE) announced their plans yesterday (May 19, 2021) for a new airport to be built. It will have 4 new concourses & 1 rebuilt one. CLE traffic is rebounding nicely (after the terrible 2020 all airports faced) with 63% of pre-Covid passenger count already. The o & d traffic at CLE is much higher than when it had hub status & the 2019 count was higher than the last full year that UA operated a hub. Before the pandemic happened, CLE predicted another 500,000+ more passengers in 2020 than 2019. The 90 minute presentation of the plans showing the 6 different terminal designs first looked at & how they made their decisions is on YouTube.

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