The Difference Between Scheduling Flights For Customers And Scheduling For Operations

American Airlines is launching service between Austin and Washington Dulles in August. This flight is absolutely ideal for me. I live in Austin and in the Before Times my most frequent destination was Washington DC – a minimum of once a month, and often twice.

Here are the current non-stop options between Austin and Washington, DC:

  • Southwest Airlines currently offers one flight a day from Austin to Washington National (they also fly to BWI, but that hardly counts.) That one flight all that is permitted by law since Austin is 1315 miles from National Airport and flights over 1250 miles away require special dispensation from the federal government.

  • United Airlines offers three flights daily between Austin and Washington Dulles. Those flights have all been upgraded to mainline (Airbus A319s). However I generally consider United unflyable due to non-functioning internet that – yes – is worse than Southwest’s. Plus United nickel and dimes more than other carriers for those without status.

American Can Grow DC – But It Has To Be Washington Dulles

American is the second largest carrier in Austin behind Southwest. They are the largest carrier at National airport by far. But they cannot legally connect the two cities non-stop. I’ve always marveled by their failure to build up a bigger presence at Dulles, in fact it’s shrunk in recent years (they used to even have an Admirals Club there).

That’s because American has a big frequent flyer base in the DC area thanks to their National Airport hub. They’re more or less punting on all of the business their customers have to fly greater than 1250 miles (outside of, say, London where joint venture British Airways operates from Washington Dulles).

Split operations between two airports are tough, but that’s the situation imposed by the federal government, and it seems strange to walk away from key business markets especially to places like Austin where the airline has a big customer base as well. A Washington Dulles – Austin flight should work. So it’s exciting to see American start service.

Washington National doesn’t just have a perimeter rule, it has slot controls. American can’t have more total flights. The only way to grow at the airport is to operate bigger planes, not more net destinations or frequencies.

Scheduling Flights For The Operation, Not The Customer

American Airlines scheduled its Austin – Dulles flights for operational convenience rather than for customer needs. There are two flights a day planned, and they’ve scheduled it such that a single Airbus A319 could operate the route. That’s great for the operation.

  • 7:30am Depart Austin

  • 11:36am Arrive Washington Dulles

  • 12:25pm Depart Washington Dulles

  • 2:25pm Arrive Austin

  • 3:30pm Depart Austin

  • 7:36pm Arrive Washington Dulles

  • 8:20pm Depart Washington Dulles

  • 10:40pm Arrive Austin

Here’s the problem. These aren’t the flight times you’d pick if you were looking to attract business customer ticket sales.

In the Before Times I was a regular on the Southwest Airlines non-stop from Washington National to Austin on Thursday afternoons. It was usually timed for a 5:45 p.m. departure. That means leaving the office a little after 4 p.m. which is doable, and getting home at a reasonable hour.

Why would anyone hang around for an 8:20 p.m. departure? Even accounting for getting out to Dulles – no matter where you’re coming from, Dulles takes time because it’s in the middle of nowhere and has midfield concourses – you’re stuck just killing time. And there’s little to do, remember American doesn’t have a club at Dulles anymore and decent food options near their gates are limited.

If you don’t want to wait until after 8 p.m. (and by the way that’s beyond American’s meal window in first class too), your other option is a 12:25 p.m. flight. You can’t work at all, and you kill most of that day.

Out of Austin flight times are a little bit better. Something around 5 p.m. would be better to facilitate more work, but 3:30 p.m. makes for not a total loss. The 7:30 a.m. is rough because it’s an early flight that doesn’t get you in early enough to do much that day – or really anything if you’re headed downtown. That’s the flight you’re taking if you need to be at a dinner, but it leaves too early (so you’re tired) and gets in too early.

The real sweet spot for business travel is 7 a.m. – 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. Only one of the four flight segments hits this, and it’s the Eastbound flight.

Austin – DC Is A Strong Route For Incumbent Players

According to data from Cirium Diio Mi, United Airlines carried 6486 passengers non-stop from Austin to Washington Dulles in September 2019, and Southwest carried 3314 non-stop to National. In total 17,093 passengers flew in this market. American carried 1471 on connections through Charlotte and Dallas.

Frontier carried 1873 passengers from Austin to Dulles in September 2019, and their return to the route has the potential to be a real drag on yields. In the fourth quarter of 2019, United earned an average one-way fare of $257, Southwest $197, and Frontier $59. Achieving United’s or Southwest’s fare levels, with reasonably full aircraft, will make the route a big winner.

American has more strength into National and there’s less competition into National (just the one flight), but United’s average fares into Dulles were higher. United has a first class cabin while Southwest does not, corporate contracts on the DC side. There is dedicated tech business in Northern Virginia apart from the city center.

Can It Work For American With A Poor Schedule?

My concern is that this flight schedule won’t work, and that’ll make it look like the route itself doesn’t work when it didn’t have the best possible chance.

On the other hand it’s possible that the route is strong enough to succeed in spite of the scheduling, but I have to assume that American thought the route was somewhat marginal before the pandemic, or else they’d have already been flying it.

This is likely primarily a business route, rather than a leisure route, so not one that should benefit from the shift-to-leisure from the pandemic. Indeed that’s also likely why they waited to start the route until August, when it was first announced in March, betting that would be closer to when business travel returned.

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. Gary, the only airline schedule to suit the business customers is to fly about every hr during evening. Before pandemic I used to fly to DC about once a month but DCA was the most convenient as I can make it to the airport in 20 min and it is easy to navigate. My problem with ca. 5 to 6 pm departure flights was I would have to go for a standby if my meetings are late. Also, I was missing a chance to mingle with colleagues after the meetings. AA also knows this and my 5 pm eventually disappeared from the schedule but ca. 7:30 pm flight remained. For me, given the IAD location, the 8:20 pm departure is entirely reasonable. My kid is out of the house and I am fine with arriving late with no traffic.
    It looks like AA is trying to collect all the folks from DC area after they would catch an early dinner. At least it is not 9:30 or 10 pm departure.
    The real question is when and whether the government would move their workers back to office and the in-person meetings will resume. Just past Fri was asked by one of the agencies to serve on an external panel beginning November. still via Zoom. We used to meet in person…

  2. Airline scheduling is a black art. Sometimes, you just have to use off times because that’s all you’ve got right now. They may be using those better times for more lucrative markets. Perhaps they’re using those times as “placeholders” for various reasons.
    Customer convenience sometimes loses priority over operational necessity or possibility.

  3. @Gary – You state that “Washington National doesn’t just have a perimeter rule, it has slot controls. American can’t have more total flights.” I am aware of the slot controls and flight limit, but thought that the DCA Perimeter Rule (1966) was still in effect – modified to 1250-mile perimeter, as the IAD-DCA answer to DFW-DAL Wright amendment. Is that now gone and airlines can now fly wherever they want within their slot allocation?

  4. Curious why BWI doesn’t count? It’s as close to DC as Dulles, with transit options that are at least as easy.

  5. @Rob

    I hardly view transit to BWI as being as easy as IAD. Apart from the fact that much of the AUS-WAS business traffic may be headed to tech heavy Virginia suburbs, anyone going from downtown DC to Dulles will enjoy the designated Dulles Access road, which is far superior to the approaches to BWI.

  6. Just a quick question about the United “internet” (presumably their app and/or website) being non-functional.

    My husband and I – both United 1Ks and 1 million (me) and 2-million (him) milers — have been very heavy users of the United website and app for years, and we’ve had very few issues. We’re just venturing back to flying now, and so far, so good. We typically fly out of EWR.

    If you have a chance, can you clarify your characterization further? Not that we’re going to switch carriers at this point, but we’re curious. Thank you.

  7. AUS is becoming pretty congested pre 9AM. My guess is that AA might have gate constraints and have to squeeze this and the other new point-to-point trips in between others that are timed to hit connecting banks at their hubs.
    Also I think that United WiFi problem is history now.

  8. @Jordan – United’s wifi problems were absolutely not history right before the pandemic. they were claiming things were better but on many of their aircraft it wasn’t better at all, plus of course their internet is slower than american’s and delta’s.

  9. @MDF-NYC:

    United’s Panasonic Wi-Fi was almost unusable pre-pandemic. I’d complain to customer service about it after almost every flight. It hasn’t been that bad recently, I assume because of much lower loads. I’ve never been able to get the DRM plug-ins to work to view movies on my computer.

  10. @jfhscott Getting to BWI from the DC metro area isn’t bad at all on the ICC (MD200). I’ve taken it plenty of times from Rockville, connecting between 270 and US 1 during rush hour and it’s a painless drive. Yes, it’s a toll road that takes EZPass. You could also take the MARC or a bus to get to BWI from the DC area. When working\living in the DC area, it’s great to have the options of BWI, DCA and IAD for air travel, depending upon which airline’s schedule works best for you.

  11. You are lucky you don’t fly into RNO. Nearly every flight takes off at dawn and they return at 10-11pm. During the day the airport has little traffic.
    They should raise the overnight parking fees.

  12. Try IB’s scheduling connecting flight from VGO-MAD and allowing barely 40 minutes to race down to the subway connecting the satellite terminal to the internal terminal; going back upstairs to join mass confusion of passengers for multiple IB to BOS, JFK, MIA,, and ORD; of course ORD flight is at last gate-#50.

    Of course, if you really want the purest definition of failing to schedule for benefit of the customer, just try Amtrak which gave up on potential business overnight traveler and turns away even the leisure market that respects time:
    NYC-CHI now 20 hour schedule (often running later) vs. 15 hours in 1965. Schedule between CHI-NYC pathetically inconvenient, leaving CHI at 940pm; arriving NYC 640pm.
    WAS-CHI now 17 hour schedule vs. 15 hour in 1965. Schedule be/tween CHI-WAS pathetically inconvenient, leaving CHI 640pm; arriving WAS 115pm.
    MSY-CHI used to be 16 hours (5pm-9am); now horribly slower and inconvenient: leave CHI 8pm; arrive MSY 330pm. Leave MSY 130pm; arrive CHI 840am.

  13. @cargocult — Thanks for the explanation. I totally misunderstood the point — didn’t even think about wifi on the flight. I just never got into the habit of using it, even on my endless (before-times) business trips. Maybe partly because my flights were so early in the morning that I would just fall asleep.

    But I do recall problems with power — totally and inexplicably unreliable. Wonder if they’ve fixed that…

  14. I see a lack of humility here. Be an adult about this. If you have to get up early, or stay up late, for work travel to receive your salary, or your bonus, or whatever, then do whatever it takes to get that compensation. Or, go flip hamburgers. Geez.

  15. Yeah right, I can see AA trying to go head to head with UA’s massive hub and operations at IAD. They don’t stand a living chance, good luck with that AA, you will fail miserably!

  16. Would disagree with some of the complaints about scheduling, actually – particularly for people flying from Austin.

    7:30am AUS-IAD 11:36am means you have an afternoon available for work/meetings/etc., regardless of whether you’re going to Northern Virginia or central DC. Maybe they could’ve gone earlier, but perhaps not possible.

    3:30pm AUS-IAD 7:36pm means you can put in more than a half-day of work before heading to airport to fly to IAD.

    8:20pm IAD-AUS 10:40pm again means you can put in a full day of work to 6pm and get to IAD from Northern Virginia or central DC with plenty of time. 10:40pm arrival is a bit late but not outrageous, especially compared to some of the post 11pm arrivals AA has scheduled elsewhere.

    Not going to make everyone happy, but hardly the worst example of bad scheduling out there!

  17. I live in the city of Washington DC. From home it is 9.3 miles to DCA, 23 miles to IAD, and 37 miles to BWI. That’s a big difference. Maryland’s Inter County Connector (mentioned in a comment from Rockville Maryland) doesn’t help me get to BWI. My rule is to never fly from BWI, to fly from IAD for west coast and Europe, and to fly from DCA for all other trips. If I were flying to Austin, it would be from DCA no matter what the airline.

  18. I was something of a road warrior before I retired, and I often was on flights that departed at 7am or arrived after 10pm. It’s an inherent part of business travel. My only rule was “no red eye domestic flights.”

  19. Not a horrible schedule, but clearly oriented toward AUS-originating travelers. The schedule is pretty crappy for WAS-area originators.

    Agree about the UA internet being the worst of the big players, but then again, UA does a better job of actually getting me to my destination, on time, than AA. If you want usable internet AND operational reliability, Delta is the play.

  20. AA’s non-stop MLB (Melbourne, FL – home to L3Harris, one of the big defense contractors) to DCA flights are on SATURDAY. Riddle me that.

  21. @gary As long as we’re being routing nerds, you’ll remember that your Southwest AUS-DCA flight came from the US Air/American merger. AA was forced to divest the SAN-DCA pair to complete the merger.

    Instead of operating the only direct to DCA from SAN, Southwest chopped it up and now it’s a “direct” SAN-AUS-DCA; DCA-AUS-SAN. They’ve been running this flight for years now with about a one hour turnaround in DCA. It’s one of the first flights out of SAN and last flights into SAN every day.

    Bummer for those based in SAN who like nonstop but don’t like BWI or IAD.

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