Effective tomorrow, March 29, American Airlines will be instituting a major schedule change at Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) airports, as it re-banks both hubs. In simple terms, “re-banking” means the process of placing groups of arriving and departing flights into “banks” of narrow time windows, the theory being that connecting passengers can step off their inbound flight and onto their connecting flight with less layover time. In DFW’s case, the airline plans to operate ten distinct banks of flights. Six of those will be “directional”, meaning inbound flights from the east will connect to another bank of flights heading west, and vice versa. Four others will be a free-for-all, for lack of a better term, with flights arriving and departing from any direction, presumably based on demand between specific city pairs.
If this sounds like a blast from the past, that’s because it is. American was a leader in introducing the “banked hub” concept in the 1980s, an innovation that proved so successful that most other major airlines copied it at their own hubs. Most airlines either abandoned or significantly unwound their banks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as they found that spreading arrivals and departures more evenly throughout the day was a more efficient use of resources after the sharp schedule cuts of the 2000s.
Why the Airlines are Doing This
You might think that scrunching a ton of flights into a short time period would cost the airlines more money, since staffing levels need to be increased to handle the increased loads during the peaks, and you would be right. The theory, however, is that customers will be more likely to book connections with shorter layovers, and thus the increase in revenue will more than offset the increase in costs. American has already been testing the rebanking theory at its Miami (MIA) hub for the better part of a year, and has reported a high degree of success; the increased revenues from additional connecting passengers has indeed outweighed the costs, with no significant deterioration in operations or the customer experience.
In case you’re wondering where the “more revenue” idea comes from, the basic theory is to take advantage of the standard “price & schedule” algorithm inherent in most search engines. All else being equal, a connecting pair with the shortest total travel time will be listed first during a flight search query. If a potential customer sees a shorter total travel time, the theory goes, they’ll be more likely to choose that option (though I also see this as a potential pitfall, as I’ll discuss later).
What This Means for Passengers
First and foremost, plan on shorter connecting time. Per the Dallas Morning News article linked to above, American expects connect times to reduce approximately 10 minutes on average. While that doesn’t sound like much, it is enough to possibly make a difference. For example, a connection shrinking from 65 to 55 minutes might mean the difference between being able to sit down and eat lunch vs. grabbing something to go. Or if your inbound flight is delayed a few minutes, the difference between a fast walk and a full-out sprint through the terminal to make your outbound connection.
More flights at specific times could also mean more passengers going through security and visiting ticket counters and airport concessions around those times. American and DFW officials say they are ramping up staffing to deal with the increase, and are even coordinating with concessionaires to ensure that they are prepared to facilitate shorter connecting times by, for example, stocking more items in the “grab and go” lanes. Where the TSA is concerned, though, who knows if they’ll have received the memo. If you’re originating at DFW, I’d plan on getting to the airport a little earlier, at least for the next few weeks, to get through security until everything shakes out. Also, expect baggage delivery times to be longer, at least initially, as kinks get worked out of the system.
Most importantly, though – if you’ve previously booked flights with a connection through DFW or ORD after March 29th, go online and check for schedule changes. Some flights have been re-timed, while others have been eliminated entirely, and your new schedule may or may not be to your liking. My sister and her family are connecting through DFW on the way to Europe this summer, and sure enough, their inbound from Memphis was canceled and they were automatically rebooked. American, in its infinite wisdom, stuck them with a 54-minute domestic-to-international connection. Though they were rather flippantly told that this was well over the minimum connecting time at DFW, just try doing that with 2 kids in tow and see how many yuks you end up with. After some back and forth, they were eventually re-accommodated on an earlier flight. Which is another important thing to remember – if you don’t like the results of a schedule change, you generally can ask to be placed on a different flight without being charged a change fee.
Why I Think This is a Bad Idea
I don’t really have a dog in this fight – I’m based out of DFW, and thus can get a nonstop pretty much anywhere – but while American has been spinning tighter connections as a “customer enhancement”, I really don’t think this whole re-banking concept, at least at DFW and ORD, is a good idea. Yes, it has worked for the most part at MIA, and connecting in DFW isn’t the nightmare it used to be, thanks to the Skylink people mover system. The train can now whisk you from the southernmost gates of Terminal D to the northernmost gates of Terminal A in about 10 minutes. But DFW and ORD are very different airports than MIA. They operate more flights, for one, but the bigger issue, in my opinion, is that both airports are subject to significant weather issues, winter storms and summer thunderstorms at ORD, and thunderstorms almost year-round at DFW. Thunderstorms at DFW can be particularly vexing, as the crazy Texas weather patterns sometimes result in the phenomenon known as “training thunderstorms”, especially during spring and early summer severe weather events. This is where a cluster of t-storms forms near or over the aiport, then sits and spins for several hours, often causing ground stops and throwing the system into chaos.
Why is this problematic for a banked hub? One, with more gates scheduled to be occupied during banked times, there will be less slack in the system in case of irregular operations caused by weather. In other words: prepare for more diversions, or the dreaded “we’re here but we’re going to have to hold short of the gate for a while because all gates are occupied” announcement from the captain upon landing. DFW worked hard to finally get rid of the penalty box problem for the most part, but I’m afraid it’s going to be back with fewer spare gates available when flights arrive and depart. Second, even without the issue of severe weather, tighter connections mean a higher chance of something going wrong if your inbound flight is even a few minutes late. Personally, I really don’t want to stress over having to sprint through the airport to catch a connection when my inbound is running 15 minutes late (yes, I fully acknowledge this makes me a wuss). And thanks to fuller airplanes these days, if you can’t run fast enough, chances are, unless you have status, you’re going to be stuck for a long while, possibly even overnight, because I suspect American won’t be holding connections for late arrivals.
In short, a large airport with a history of weather issues doesn’t seem like a good place to try and tighten connections, but we’ll see how it works. Spring severe weather season is upon us, so we probably won’t have to wait long to see how things work with an IRROPS situation. Beyond that, as I alluded to earlier, a fair number of passengers booking these tight connections are just going to be doing so because it’s the first option presented in a GDS or on AA.com, without understanding the risks involved. Admittedly, all carriers already do this – who hasn’t seen the crazy 34 minute connection in Houston or 70 minute inter-terminal connection in Paris while searching for flights – but I suspect American will find that the costs incurred with dealing with these passengers when they complain is going to offset any incremental margins from selling extra tickets. Time will tell.