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.