Sorry, Phoenix. This is How Airlines Choose International Routes.

Reader afterbang asks,

Why are there so few true international flights arriving / departing from PHX? There is Mexico/Canada/Alaska/Hawaii, but those don’t count. Nothing all the way to Asia or Oceania. There is exactly one transatlantic flight – [British Airways Phoenix – London] with $900 fuel surcharges.

Phoenix is the 6th largest US city with 1.5 million people. I saw they have a subsidy incentive for the airlines to launch new service. What gives?

In a story I heard from more than one person at the time, a couple of years ago Doug Parker and Tom Horton were making the rounds of American’s bases and they had a talk with Los Angeles-based pilots.

One question for Parker was about adding transpacific flying from Los Angeles. He said that wasn’t on the table. You don’t want to tell your pilots they don’t get more flying, if you want them to be happy.

Horton jumped into the conversation to rescue Parker saying that they had just added Asia flying (Seoul, Hong Kong) and they needed to evaluate how those flights were doing before they made additional decisions.

Later in the discussion Parker circled back to this question and mentioned off the cuff that they might add more transpacific flying after all… from Phoenix. You don’t tell your legacy American pilots that the US Airways pilots will get the good new flying. And this statement made absolutely no sense.

American adds transpacific flying from Los Angeles, because there’s more passengers there flying to Asia than from Phoenix which has virtually no origination/destination (non-stop) traffic to Asian cities. With hubs in both locations, you feed your Los Angeles flights, you don’t compete in the more lucrative non-stop market by having your premium traffic route Eastward through Phoenix.

Phoenix doesn’t have more international service because size of the city alone is far from a determining factor for international air service.

Here are some of the key elements:

  • How big is a city, but more importantly how big is the overall metropolitan area unserved by other more convenient airports?

  • How much international traffic is there from that area, and more importantly how much premium business travel?

  • Does the primary carrier in a city have partners which fly to the largest international destination(s) from the city? For instance, United operates a hub in Denver and their Star Alliance and joint venture partner Lufthansa flies from there to Frankfurt.

  • Who operates major service, and what opportunities does the rest of their route network provide? In Phoenix the dominant carrier is US Airways, which focused on Philadelphia (and to a lesser extent Charlotte) for transatlantic flying. Operating transatlantic flights from Phoenix might have made some of those existing flights unprofitable, and they didn’t have any transpacific routes. Now, post-merger with American, if they’re going to add a transpacific flight it’s much more likely to be from Los Angeles (with greater non-stop traffic) and Phoenix and the two airports are too close to each other to support both.

  • Do those carriers have aircraft appropriate to the mission? For instance, I used to be surprised by the lack of Hawaii service from alternate airports in California offered by United. I thought they could pull off Orange County – Hawaii, for instance. But they weren’t going to make that run with their fleet of Airbus A319s and 320s, and didn’t have the modern 737s prior to the Continental merger to operate it. The Boeing 787 opens up lots of possibilities and explains why we get Austin – London on British Airways and Denver – Tokyo on United… it’s a smaller, more fuel efficient plane that has the range for transoceanic flying.

  • What’s the cargo market like? An airline may fly a route because of substantial cargo, even if passenger demand is lighter.

San Antonio is a bigger city than Dallas, but not a bigger metro area and it doesn’t have the non-stop business travel that Dallas has. Indianapolis and Jacksonville are bigger cities than San Francisco proper — but the overall metro San Francisco area is bigger, it’s a prime business city, and a significant destination for Asia especially.

El Paso is a bigger city than Washington DC. But DC gets flights because of its importance — plenty of people flying in to lobby the US federal government, it’s a tourist destination too, and there’s a Northern Virginia tech community. Etihad flies to Dulles not because of the profits it can earn on the route, but to connect the capital of the UAE with the capital of the US. This is common.

Where is high yield business travel going from Phoenix? The airlines don’t think there’s enough of it to justify non-stop flying to Europe or to Asia, and Phoenix is convenient for connections to Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas.

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. Nice analysis, but then how does British airways justify their flight Phoenix flight?

  2. It’s a low yield warm vacation destination in an English speaking country. Iberia flies more to Spanish speaking countries too…

  3. BA doesn’t charge $900 in fuel surcharges. A meaningful chunk of any co-pay on a BA award ticket is the air passenger tax in London.

  4. Your reader asks why no service and then complains BA charge $900 on the route. He/she is clearly not intending to pay to fly so, equally clearly, the airlines will have little interest in serving that sort of customer. Does Phoenix have paying customers?

  5. Indeed, BA charges USD 904 YQ (R/T) on Business Class tickets.
    But it only charges USD 458 YQ (R/T) on Economy Class tickets.
    BA charges the same YQs for Las Vegas (LAS) or Los Angeles (LAX) to London.
    However for NYC to LON, the YQ is 828 USD for business class.

  6. Also, it’s good to remember that many routes are chosen for reasons other than the pure profitability of said route.

    As with the Etihad example, there are often routes chosen for reasons of national pride. Also, routes are sometimes chosen to satisfy an executive’s to personal whims or, more commonly, to satisfy an investor.

    Finally, there’s a lot of times a carrier will choose a route to protect a landing slot or as a quid pro quo to get access to particular airport or market.

    Just my 2¢.

  7. One I find interesting is American’s nonstop between RDU and LHR. Glaxosmithkline virtually funds that flight

  8. Before the Merger US didn’t have the planes to fly to Asia or Europe from PHX, now they do. Now it’s an O/D issue, customs at PHX is a breeze, not so much at SFO.LAX or DFW (well depending on when you arrive) then a simple connection. I would like to know the break down of passengers who final destination is DFW vs those who have to connect. I think it one can breeze through customs and have a short wait at PHX vs having a long custom wait (possible missing a connection) in DFW. Granted DFW has a flagship lounge, PHX does not, but then again the connection time in PHX might be short enough in which having FSL wont be needed.

  9. The BA flight from PHX to LHR serves all the car companies who have their test track in Phoenix. I used to fly the flight all the time connecting to Germany, and business class was filled every flight by Audi, Mercedes, VW, BMW, Porche, etc engineers who were heading to the test track. The flight is usually filled to capacity too.

  10. My question is whether AA will keep all those European non-stops from Philadelphia it inherited from US.

    Also, around DC we’re worried that United may drastically scale back it’s IAD hub even more in favor of Newark. Having an airport that’s mostly international airlines and Frontier would be weird.

  11. Why do more OW Airlines not fly to CLT now that USArways and AA have merged? BA used to fly CLT-LGW years ago but stopped. CLT would also be a nice addition to Qatar Airways to feed into the USAirways network but I have heard of no expansion of International flights to CLT.

  12. AA now has huge international hubs at JFK, ORD and LAX. I don’t see PHL or even CLT keeping theirs.

  13. The St. Louis area suffered from the cluelessness of planners who put the cart before the horse, when it came to transportation. An all weather runway was built at Lambert, upgrades on both on the interior and exterior and it continue to be an the airport for bargain travelers. Lambert once was a major hub for TWA and later, SWA spent years bogarting the gates it had leased and hardly used.

  14. PHX is a bit of a dump. Not sure why international carrier would be interested in flying to the surface of the sun. I recall Japan airlines was choosing a new destination on the Western United States and picked San Diego over PHX, even thought PHX had a much bigger airport. I think in the next few years, we’ll see AA retrench from PHX and it will be just like STL, CVG (Cincinnati), and PIT. Those cities lost AA, DL, and US respectively as hub airports and are now ghost towns.

  15. Gary, you clearly missed the mark on this one, and just repeated something you heard…. If you did some actual analysis of the market, you would come to a different conclusion. Honeywell, Intel, Boeing, Freeport-Mcmoran, American express, Raytheon all have over 15k people employed in the area with a significant amount of premium international travel. Not to mention the annual conference draws. America West/US Airways forced their customers to connect. (Take a morning flight east or a late flight to LAX/SFO and you will notice the % of travelers that are connecting internationally. PHX could easily support a flight to Seoul or Tokyo………

  16. “El Paso is a bigger city than Washington DC.”

    Even without considering your other factors, that’s a poor comparison. DC is smaller in population because its arbitrary municipal boundaries are constrained. Most other cities have more of the suburbs technically within the city proper. The DC metro area has over six million people while the El Paso metro area has 837K.

  17. BA now does quite well on this route. CW runs full on most days, and the PHX-LHR price is consistently high. A few years ago they increased the frequency to every day.

    I fly this route about 6-8 times per year being PHX based and the route seems to be doing fine after a shaky few years in the 2006-2008 range.

    PHX does have quite a few multinationals with a large number of employees due to relatively cheap operational costs. Scottsdale has no shortage of millionaires.

    For Europeans, it’s the gateway to the Grand Canyon and of course a lot of multinationals have operations here.

    Anyway, some of you may be pretty down on PHX, though I like the heat. The airport has received a refresh of its restaurants recently with a much better selection of local establishments.

    Anyway, not really trying to defend PHX, just saying the market is underrated and I don’t expect it to become the next STL as there’s actual passenger demand and a rapidly expanding population. While I would love a nonstop to HKG, with LAX TBIT receiving a very nice refresh, the connection via LAX on CX is fine and a direct flight to Asia seems unlikely unless LAX has no more capacity.

  18. Arizona St Univ is the largest Univ in the USA, has a ton of int’l partnership agreements worldwide and is 5mi from PHX.

  19. Sorry, Gary, I’m with Polk on this one; the El Paso vs. DC comparison to knock down the “why doesn’t a big city like Phoenix have more international flights” argument is so stilted and strained as to be ridiculous. When you look at Phoenix proper, it’s the 6th biggest US city. When you consider the metro area (and this fails to even consider how many people from Tuscon – who are considered to live in a different metro area – drive to Phoenix to take flights), it only drops down to 12th, still ahead, in terms of population, of Detroit, Seattle, San Diego, Charlotte, and others with more “far away” international flights. El Paso is 19th in city proper population, but 67th in terms of metro area. There aren’t any smaller metros that I can see that have a lot more international flights than ELP (like you do see with Phoenix), especially when one considers that CJS is right over the border, and serves 9 “international” destinations. Metro DC dwarfs metro El Paso by several orders of magnitude, so the comparison it actually kind of silly. Furthermore, El Paso’s airport would get a lot fewer flights if not for some of the same reasons that DC gets more flights than you’d think given its population (I’d guess Ft Bliss and the federal border, customs and law enforcement infrastructure brings a really disproportionate amount of the traffic to ELP, and flights are now down since the Wright Amendment has gotten repealed, and flights out of Love Field aren’t stopping here anymore), so not a great comparison for that reason, either. I’m not saying your argument is wrong (I think at least the general thrust of it is right on), but cherry-picking ELP to put against the WAS airports strains credibility.

  20. @pogued you really need to get your facts correct on the reason why Japan Airlines picked SAN over PHX and it’s very simple, there is a lot of Manufacture of Japanese products in Tijuana as well as Bio-Tech firms in San Diego to justify a flight, also look at the aircraft that JAL uses on that route, which is perfect. Between ASU and UoA there is enough academia to justify a flight as well as tourist. The Grand Canyon is one of the biggest tourist attraction in the western US.

  21. @Tony: “Granted DFW has a flagship lounge, PHX does not, but then again the connection time in PHX might be short enough in which having FSL wont be needed.”

    Um, no, DFW does not have a Flagship Lounge.

    @Gary: As a 20 year veteran of the retail corporate travel space in PHX, the problem has never been one of O/D – it exists, but the follow-on effect of poaching premium pax from other markets. One quick TATL example: LH had PHX-FRA service as well as their services from west coast cities, LAS, DEN, and DFW. Cutting the PHX flight boosted loads across their other gateways making those flights more profitable.

    For TPAC, there were good numbers — just one division of Motorola had daily O/D to Asia of 35 premium pax. One division of Intel (not my account) had daily O/D to Asia of 20 premium pax. Certainly we thought we could convince “some” carrier to throw us a bone — even if only 4x weekly. I sat in meetings with JAL, Asiana, KE, and UA — but the ultimate “nail in the coffin”? Lack of cargo. If the carrier couldn’t fill the belly of the plane, they just could not turn significant profits.

    PHX might yet see some kind of TPAC and more TATL — the 787s are a good fit for many routes and, combined with relatively low oil prices, there’s a chance. After all, this whole current love affair of expansion constraint is soooooo contrary to airline DNA.

    Just my .02 centavos…

  22. Thanks for taking the question Gary.

    Other posters already hit the key points I didn’t mention in my original question – lots of big international companies, lots of millionaires in Scottsdale (and Fountain Hills, and Paradise Valley etc), big tourist destination in the Grand Canyon.. The weather is a big draw on people moving here, let alone tourism. We have a large “snowbird” population – people who only live here during the winter. Want to avoid the worst heat? Don’t come in June – August.
    Obviously I live here, so I’m biased. But it just seems under served for international nonstop.

  23. Is there really no O/D traffic in Phoenix? I think the main reason more international airlines choose not to fly here is because the abysmal lack of business and first class amenities and connecting flights. Star Alliance won’t come here because United has a small presence and an even smaller living room-I mean lounge. My bet is that once Delta gets their new lounge up, either KLM or Air France will fly here in their 787s and it will possibly attract Aeromexico back to Phoenix.

  24. I got a lot out of this article and it made sense the first time I read it. Is there any sort of an updated opinion now 7 years later? AA has a much larger transfer/connection traffic in PHX in 2023. AA has the Dreamliner now which should open up many long-thin routes. TOkyo to Phoenix to Sao Paulo in a 788 could be a strong move. The largest Japanese population outside of Japan in SP, and Phoenix could serve as the connecting services between the thus achieving several goals at once. Expands international service in PHX, opens TYO and GRU markets up, relieves pressure in Dallas among others. Thoughts? (that routing isn’t meant to be a fanboy wannabe, there is strong connecting traffic between those cities – my question pushes on the notion that not EVERYTHING must go through Dallas.)

  25. @Randy I agree, Phoenix is growing quickly and is projected to nearly double in passenger quantity. They also have space up North to move all cargo which will free space to the south for the military to expand, which leaves enough space in the center for another terminal. So I think Phoenix will get a couple more transatlantic and their first transpacific routes within 5-10 years.

  26. AA won’t do any 787 routes out of PHX until there’s enough demand to set up 787 maintenance support in PHX. That won’t happen without multiple routes.

    As far as the 787 is concerned, PHX is an outstation. Without adding staff, if a 787 has a significant problem in PHX, they’re bringing in techs from DFW or TUL, and possibly ferrying planes in/out.

    AA and BA share preflight maintenance support for the 777 in both PHX and LHR.

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