How Can US Airways and American Possibly Combine Operations at LAX?

One of the things airlines have to do when they merge is combine their airport operations. They want gates to be as close as possible to facilitate connections, not to mention reducing the cost of staffing and lowering the cost of operations.

This is especially true where one of the merging airlines has a hub.

And this is uniquely difficult at airports which are really space-constrained.

Now, US Airways doesn’t do a ton of Dallas flying and American has plenty of real estate at the sprawling Dallas Fort-Worth airport. Both Miami and Chicago are already fairly spread out and American’s operation dwarfs US Airways at both. Chicago isn’t a piece of cake, but American is fanned out across the four concourses of terminal 3 and there won’t be many US Airways flights to fold in. The reverse scenario happens at Charlotte.

Probably the most difficult challenge for combining operations will take place in Los Angeles.

American operates out of Terminal 4, and with the exception of a single Qantas flight (QF16 to Brisbane) they are the only airline using that terminal. US Airways currently operates out of terminal 1.

US Airways has as many as 7 Phoenix, 5 Charlotte, and 6 Philadelphia flights. That’s up to 18 arrivals and 18 departures in a day.

The only route where American overlaps US Airways at LAX is with 4 regional jets a day to Phoenix. Assuming they decide those are duplicative, they still need space for 14 daily flights. Managing to kick Qantas out doesn’t get them there. Better gate utilization won’t get them there either. They can’t just move US Airways into terminal 4.

They’re in a real pickle.

  • American is pretty self-contained in T4. There’s not much space to free up.
  • Terminal 4 and Terminal 1, which houses US Airways, are as far apart as two terminals can be at that airport
  • Terminals 5 through 8 are all connected airside, no other terminals are. United isn’t moving out of terminal 6 (shared with Alaska), 7, or 8. Delta isn’t moving out of terminal 5 (even if you could incentivize them to swap terminal 5 for 4 you still don’t have enough space in any case).

It seems like the only available solutions are:

  1. long minimum connecting times, forcing customers to transfer terminals and re-clear security
  2. bus gates – bus passengers out to and back from planes rather than parking planes at as many gates, so you can turn around gates more quickly (there’s speculation that this will be the plan)
  3. implement airside connections between two terminals, probably vehicle-based because you’re not going to get capital projects done quickly

The entire goal of the Los Angeles operation is going to be to increase connectivity. You want people to be able to fly those US Airways routes, and connect up to American flights. You also want customers to simply know where to check in. If they’re flying American, they know they go to terminal 4 now. But what if they’re flying American and might have to go to terminal 4, but they might have to go to terminal 1?

Even before the airlines actually combine their operations, they’re going to want to codeshare their flights. That only feeds the confusion. Maybe all of your old Charlotte, Phoenix, and Philadelphia flights remain operated by US Airways and US Airways flies out of terminal 1. But what if you’re a customer and you have an American ticket to fly American’s codeshare flight between Los Angeles and Charlotte. Customers will wind up going to the wrong terminal. Customers will wind up missing flights. And it won’t really be those customers’ faults.

In order to realize the benefits of the merger, and indeed in order not to create customer confusion, frustration, and resentment, they’re going to have to figure out a way to make getting between the US Airways gates and American gates easier. (They’re also going to have to start bus service out to the American Eagle midfield terminal) from the US Airways gates.)

Personally I’d go with option 3 — bus service “airside” or post-security between the terminals. This is what you already have between the American and US Airways piers at Washington National where US Airways has a handful of flights departing from the gates primarily used by American now – and it works.

But it won’t be as simple at LAX, either, as it is at National largely because the US Airways and American gates are so far away from each other — literally as far away as they can be at that airport. To connect the gates via bus you’d have to drive passengers literally halfway around the LAX airport, dodging (well, technically waiting for) planes as you go. That means a decent amount of time to do the transfer.

If US Airways could move from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 then you’d only have to drive around the Tom Bradley International Terminal to bring passengers between the American and US Airways operations in Los Angeles. (Update: I had forgotten that US Airways is already slated to move to terminal 3 to accommodate more gates for Southwest — turns out to be a great move!)

Given the complications of the split operation, even connected via airside bus, as LAX, I tend to think they’d be more likely to bus passengers to and from the tarmac rather than busing passengers between terminals. It’s hardly my preferred situation and indeed I hated it a year and a half ago when LAX construction was causing this to happen quite frequently. I hate landing and being bused back to the terminal.

While this is one of the thornier airport operations problems they’ll face in the merger, it’s the same sort of problem faced by all airline mergers. Delta-Northwest and Continental-United have faced similar problems in the past. It’s never pretty, but there are road maps.

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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. […] Constraining the combination at Los Angeles is likely to prove an operational challenge. United and Delta are strong competitors at LAX now, and so is Alaska, so this airport really shouldn’t be an area of DOJ focus, but it probably is, and the demands while inconvenient — especially for passengers who might fly on a merging American-US Airways — probably wouldn’t stand in the way of doing the deal given how badly Doug Parker wants to run the world’s largest airline. […]


  1. I was in the USAirways Club at LAX last week, and they told me that they were closing the club in November and moving the whole US Airways operation from T1 to T4 with American. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly what one USAirways Club receptionist thinks.

  2. Interesting stuff. If I recall correctly, Reno Air or perhaps TWA (?) operated in/out of Terminal 3 and there was a bus operation for some time after that merger. I remember it being remarkably unpleasant, but I feel that way about LAX in general. 🙂

    No doubt they’ll figure something out, but I’m guessing a bus is going to be involved for the near to medium term. Solving “little challenges” like this was one of my favorite things about working for an airline. Miss it sometimes.

  3. AA also has the satellite terminal where the Eagle flights go out and I suspect we will see mainline flights go out of there as well. A pain for FAs and pilots, but easier for passengers.

    It seems to me that flights with less O/D and more connecting can be scheduled to come into the appropriate terminal (say flights from PHL in time to make the PVG or Hawaiian flights).

  4. Via your fellow BA blogger aadvantagegeek:

    [you=Andrew Nocella, senior vice president for marketing and planning]
    You’ll be moving out of Terminal 1 to accommodate a major renovation. Is that what US Airways wanted?

    We were happy in Terminal 1. We have a club there. We have been there for forever, basically. It would be our desire likely not to move. But I think they made a pretty compelling case that a renovation in one needed to occur and that three would be pretty good for us. I think over time they presented us a business case that we think was OK. We are in the process of moving now. I think some time in September of October we’ll be in there. And significant terminal renovations at Terminal 1 can go on. So life changes, life evolves. We recognize the need to compromise. But we were not anxious to leave terminal 1.

  5. Leaving from T1 is great, you park at the Park ‘n Fly and you’re in the terminal well within 5 mins. The shuttle can take 45 mins to go around from T1 to T7/8 at HELL-A-X at the wrong time on certain days. Then if you’re taking off on one of the north runways it takes the plane 15 to 20 min’s to taxi around to those runways. Hopefully they don’t give up T1.

  6. @chris – I don’t know about you but that quote doesn’t sound very dispositive about anything to me…

  7. @john @Adam – as i say moving from T1 to T3 could help if they wanted to connect gates airside via bus. But a planned move to T3 doesn’t tell us one way or another whether they’ll keep T3 gates, whether they’ll bus airside, or whether they’ll collapse to T4 and do bus gates to an apron position.

  8. LAX doesn’t actually strike me as problematic. AA is a little underutilized at T4 right now. Cut the four duplicate flights or upguage the services, trim a few flights (remember – this is what happens in a merger), move the BNE flight to tbit, and they can make it work. I could see bussing for a little bit while they integrate, but that wouldn’t be for more than a year, tops.

    LGA, on the other hand, is problematic. That is the field where the operations will be the most challenging to integrate.

  9. The terminal layout LAX is one of the very worst in the USA, and simply getting to your terminal is a nightmare, much like driving the roads.

  10. Not rocket science, am sure they will figure it out. It is just too bad that these mergers (takeovers) are stifling competition. But as Mr. Nocella so aptly put it in Chris’ post above, life goes on and evolves.

  11. @Nybanker – I really only see LGA as tough in terms of “which terminal will the customer go to?’ since US Airways has a substantially diminished presence at LGA now.. it’s mostly LGA-Hub flying for both airlines, meaning there’ll be very little connecting traffic. So less of an issue of terminal transfer. Nonetheless the AA/US combo, combined with likelihood of having to shed slots at DCA, does make US wish, I’d bet, that they hadn’t done the Delta slot deal at LaGuardia.

  12. Could AA move the JFK flights plus int’l flights to TBIT and utilize the rest of T4 better and be done with it? As for LGA…maybe UA will swap the C gates AA has for A gates. At least A gates and the C terminal are right around the corner.

  13. The simplest solution will be to shrink the mainline flights until they fit into T4. Maybe replace some mainline flights with RJs that can operate to the remote satellite facility. Airlines tend to shrink operations after mergers anyway. And on an interim basis, until they shrink, they can bus pax to remote parking positions. But eventually, it’s shrink to fit T4.

  14. @ gary- that interview doesn’t answer much, but thought it was an interesting FYI since it focuses on US-AA @ LAX….

    It used to be a pain transferring to/from AA T3 flights and AA T4 flights there- I usually chose to go landside and walk through the parking garage.

    One anecdote: I remember flying LAS-LAX-JFK and my seatmate LAS-LAX was a motivational speaker/published author/tech guru who was connecting to the same flight LAX-JFK. He said he liked to do the walk between the terminals so that he could smoke up with a then-illegal substance to prepare himself for the next flight….

  15. I don’t think US will move to T4 for quite some time, at least until TBIT is completed and the secure corridor between TBIT and T4 is complete.

    Rest assured, once the merged airline merges completely (that is all the way down to the crew and labor deals) the total number of flights out of LAX to the other hubs will be less. That is, they might shed a DFW flight or two, maybe ORD, maybe one CLT, or maybe one of the current hubs will be de-hubbed. We don’t know, but the current XX toal daily departures to all hubs combined will be less down the road. I also fully expect QF to no longer operate any departures out of T4 as well as all AA international arrivals will be over at TBIT.

  16. Re LGA, I’m not talking about connections…I’m talking about the gross amount of volume there. No way it can fit within AA’s C/D pier combo (which is already subject to separate security). US still has a non-trivial presence, even after the slot swap. LGA is the biggest integration issue of any of the domestic fields.

  17. Two thoughts.If they have to use the remote gates way out west of TBI you are adding a minimum of 20 minutes to any connection time. It was brutal during construction 2 years ago.
    Second,with the retirement of the 762’s to JFK AA was looking at additional flights on the 321’s to match current capacity. That will tighten any present excess gate capapcity in Term 4.

  18. Wasn’t AA meant to get 4 gates at the newly built TBIT, which starts opening this year? Couldn’t that help with the crowding at T4? I’m thinking AA could move some international flights out to TBIT (Asia and Europe are obvious choices) to open up gates at T4.

  19. Indeed, the remote gates for AA RJ’s are way out past Terminal 8 and in the boonies. It’s an incredibly cramped building with limited restrooms and very little services. It can sometimes take waiting in line for two busses to get you back to T4 depending on how many planes arrive on top of each other. There is also connecting bus service to AA partner Alaska at T6- that also needs to be considered in AA’s future plans. But I don’t think there’s any way they would think to fly mainline equipment from the remote terminal. Just not realistic given the current infrastructure.

  20. back in 09 I had to make a T7 to TBIT flight and was advised not to take one of the buses but to walk it, as it was faster to walk then to wait for the bus to drive around 75% of the terminal

  21. UA and CO have had some history of this — for a long time CO operated some flights out of Terminal A at EWR by alphabet. Cities beginning with A, B, and C operated out of A, with everything else at C. A huge pain if you were making an inter-alphabet connection.

    In BOS today, UA is still running split operations out of Terminals A and C — pmCO destination departures operate out of A, and pmUA destinations operate out of C. So inbound flights are somewhat unpredictable, as their arrival gate depends on where the plane is going next. Ironically, they’re fixing this with the new Terminal B addition, which will sit between US and AA when it’s done.

    Regarding US at LAX, I can’t help but think that US was thinking of an AA merger when they agreed to the switch to T3. As I understand it, AA has bussed passengers between T3 and T4 in the past — a substantially easier proposition than going between T1 and T4.

  22. I think one of the best and easiest solutions would be to move all of the JFK flights to T3. They are mostly O&D, and the 767-200’s and soon 321’s will just be doing turns anyway.

  23. You’d have to think the TBIT expansion and connector will help solve the problem, though that is some time away. A counter agent recently said that the intention was to add gates on a western extension of the terminal, once the old TBIT gates are demolished and the space between the terminals is extended. We’ll see. I don’t see using the AA Eagle satellite for mainline aircraft, as you simply can’t bus that many paxs, and they have difficulty busing the RJ capacity already (hate those waits for the bus!). I don’t see moving JFK to T3, as 1) there is plenty of connecting paxs on those flights, and 2) more importantly, all the premium services/check in/lounge are at T4, which is critical for the JFK services. Finally, no, they will not downsize the operation to fit into T4, that would dilute the value of the merger and bad for the cornerstone strategy at LAX, especially given DL’s aggressive moves at the airport.

  24. When US moves to T3, I don’t think a skywalk over the garage would be too difficult to build. AA has them between terminals at DFW. Not sure who decided to build them. But I thought the same thing about LAX. AA could not make it work after they bought TW and I doubt it would work now. Airside bus in the meantime and secure skywalk later. That would be my best guess.

  25. LAX should start working on an airside elevated train loop like the one at DFW. The DFW system works ok, and the current layout at LAX is actually better for an airside elevated train loop than DFW.

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