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:
- long minimum connecting times, forcing customers to transfer terminals and re-clear security
- 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)
- 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.