Representatives from the Baton Rouge Metro Airport (BTR) meet with multiple airlines every year to seek new or expanded service. These include incumbent BTR airlines and those not serving the airport such as Southwest. Today, four airlines control 85% of the domestic airline seating capacity due to industry consolidation. BTR is served by three of the four in American, Delta, and United, which are the only truly "global" airlines that can connect Baton Rouge to destinations worldwide and the world to Baton Rouge. American, Delta, and United have frequent flights from BTR to some of their largest hub airports, and they have upgauged most flights to larger, dual-class regional jets or mainline aircraft. Additionally, ViaAir now offers nonstop flights from BTR to Orlando-Sanford and to Austin.
Airlines perform route analyses to estimate how profitable a potential flight may be, taking into consideration passenger demand forecasts, hub connectivity (network airlines), aircraft and pilot availability, and the competitive situation at the airport and nearby airports. Airline business models and current priorities also play a pivotal role in where they choose to fly. For example, many low-cost airlines focus on larger markets, often linking them to major "destination markets." They fly large jets they must fill with local passengers going to a single destination, unlike network airline flights to a "hub" with hundreds of connections. A "network airline" flight that can be filled with passengers going to multiple destinations due to connecting opportunities at a "hub airport" is often a better fit for a smaller airport. However, limited slot and gate availability at hub airports has become a factor since a new flight needs to be timed to connect to/from other flights, and seating capacity on those flights has to be available for connecting passengers. If gate times and slots are not available to facilitate significant connectivity, the flight's prospects for success diminish.
Airlines also analyze the existing competitive situation for multiple airports in the region. Proximity to other airports is a key factor since some airlines are hesitant to serve an airport close to one they currently serve, especially if it means duplicating routes. This is particularly true with low-cost carriers. Airlines parse and analyze multiple sources of aviation market intelligence to determine the potential passenger volume and profitability on flights under consideration. Sometimes it is not just whether a new flight can be profitable, but if it can be more profitable than an existing route, or other new-route options. This is particularly true at slot-controlled airports such as Washington Reagan (DCA); since no new slots are available, flights have to be taken from other airports to free up slots for new flights. Aircraft and pilot availability are other considerations. Until recently, most airlines were not growing their fleets but just replacing aircraft on a 1-for-1 basis. The pilot shortage has become more severe, and is also limiting growth options.
Airlines follow passengers. Supporting existing service at BTR is critical since airlines need to see high load factors (% of seats filled) on those flights to confirm that additional service is warranted. The more passengers that choose BTR, the better our business case for additional flights. Incentives play a role as well, especially those provided by third-party sources that offer more than what the airport is allowed to provide. Airports are restricted to fee waivers and advertising funds, which BTR offers, but other incentives such as revenue guarantees must come from non-airport funds. Lastly, commitments from high-volume travel generators such as corporations and large organizations to use potential new service can be influential. If your company or organization has significant travel volume to certain destinations that you could commit to an airline in writing for new nonstop flights, we always like hearing from you.
Here is some specific research that goes into the detail and science behind the decisions taken from Dr. Peter P. Belobaba, a professor of Airline Management at MIT.
Economic considerations dominate route evaluation:
• Forecasts of potential passenger and cargo demand (as well as expected revenues) for planned routes are critical to evaluations
• Origin-destination market demand is a primary source of demand and revenues for a given route, but far from the only source
• In large airline hub networks, traffic flow support to the new route from connecting flights can make it profitable
• Airline’s market share of total forecast demand for the new route depends on the existence of current and expected future competition
• The fundamental economic criterion for a planned route is potential for incremental profitability in the short run, given the opportunity cost of taking aircraft from another route
– Route Evaluation Issues:
• Practical considerations can be just as important
• Technical capability to serve a new route depends on the availability of aircraft with adequate range and proper capacity
• Performance and operating cost characteristics of available aircraft in the airline’s fleet determine economic profitability
• If the route involves a new destination, additional costs of airport facilities, staff relocation, and sales offices must be considered
• Regulations, bilaterals, and limited airport slots can impose constraints on new route operations, to the point of unprofitability
• Strategic considerations can sometimes overlook lack of route profit; longer term competitive and market presence benefits of entering a new route even if it is expected to be unprofitable in short run
Route Planning Models:
• Route planning requires a detailed evaluation approach
• Demand, cost, and revenue forecasts are required for a specific route, perhaps for multiple years into the future
• An assumed market share of total demand based on models of passenger choice of different airline and schedule options
• Depends to a large extent on the presence and the expected response of competitors to the route entry
Route Profitability Models:
• Computer models designed to perform such route evaluations, like the ability to integrate competitive effects
• Profit estimates entirely dependent on assumptions used
Hub Impacts on Route Planning:
• New routes to smaller spoke cities become much easier to justify in an established hub network
• An airline needs only 1 or 2 passengers per flight to each of 30+ connecting destinations to make a 100-seat aircraft “profitable”
• However, such incremental analysis leads to a tendency to overlook potential displacement of other traffic on connecting legs
• Same “incremental” logic makes it more difficult to stop service to a potentially unprofitable destination, which provides connecting traffic support to other flights
• Difficult to justify a new non-stop service to by-pass the hub, as it might steal traffic from hub flights; however, a large number of departures in a connecting market can allow an airline to build market share and perhaps introduce a non- stop flight supported by many connecting opportunities