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Delta Air Lines puts a final nail in the coffin of Memphis’ once-bustling air passenger hub by chopping 29 flights effective Tuesday.
The post-Labor Day schedule drops Memphis International Airport’s dominant carrier down to 64 flights on peak days, with more cuts expected.
After losing nonstops to Phoenix, Ft. Lauderdale and 10 other cities, the airport will be down to about 100 flights a day by all carriers, compared to 300 a day in 2000.
Amid the deepening gloom and Delta’s declaration that it no longer considers Memphis a hub, airport officials have begun crafting a modernization plan that could include bulldozing surplus facilities.
The southern end of Concourse A was walled off earlier this summer, reflecting the obsolescence of the airport’s 1999 addition to accommodate Northwest Airlines’ then-booming regional jet business.
Delta has steadily scaled back the Memphis hub since inheriting it in the 2008 buyout of bankrupt Northwest. Northwest and Delta combined had nearly 240 flights at Memphis before the merger.
Delta has been at 93 a day since the last round of reductions in January.
“Delta’s Memphis network has been reduced as higher fuel costs combined with operationally inefficient aircraft and poor local demand have service unprofitable,” Delta spokesman Anthony Black said. “Memphis will remain one of Delta’s top 10 markets for daily departures and will continue to serve 18 of the top 20 markets,” he added.
Delta is primarily cutting flights in order to park 50-seat regional jets that are no longer profitable to operate at permanently elevated jet fuel prices.
Industry experts and airport officials say they believe the Atlanta-based carrier will settle at around 30-40 flights a day at Memphis when the remaining 50-seaters are grounded.
Delta’s latest reduction leaves the carrier with 29 nonstop destinations served from Memphis, down from 41 at the peak. Among the remaining cities, about half are served by 50-seaters.
The loss of connectivity is causing headaches for business and leisure travelers alike, forcing them to choose time-gobbling connecting flights.
But the cutbacks have not harmed the city’s tourism industry, said Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane.
The number of people flying expressly to or from Memphis is slightly down because of the tepid economy, not the flight reductions, Kane said. While flights are fewer, he said, the loss of options has been offset by lower fares that have followed hub downsizing.
Although tourists may be getting into the city, it’s harder for Memphians to fly out. Longtime Memphis travel agent Dallas Minner said lost Phoenix and Ft. Lauderdale service hurt the worst.
People trying to reach popular cruise departure points in South Florida will spend more time making connections to get there. Losing the Ft. Lauderdale flights comes after American Airlines dropped its Memphis-Miami route.
Loss of Phoenix means “loss of convenience and additional travel time, especially to the older travel market that frequents Phoenix. They were willing and able to pay Delta’s higher fare to avoid connections,” Minner said. US Airways also eliminated a Memphis-Phoenix nonstop.
Other cuts won’t have as much impact, Minner said, because the cities could be considered within driving distance: Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fayetteville, Ark., Shreveport, Baton Rouge, St. Louis and Knoxville.
Omaha and Jacksonville are also being eliminated, and service to Louisville and Nashville is dropping to once a day from twice a day.
Larry Cox, the airport authority’s chief executive officer, said the airport is close to returning to passenger activity levels not seen since the late 1970s and early 1980s, before airline industry deregulation touched off a period of intense competition.
The flip side of weakening passenger numbers is that FedEx Corp. has become an anchor that pays the bulk of airfield expenses except for the passenger facility. FedEx Express operates about 250 flights a day from its world hub at Memphis.
The Delta hub’s history here goes back to 1974, Cox said, when the airline leased 12 gates in Concourse A and started making connections for passengers headed to and from other parts of the country. Delta eventually established a major connecting hub in Cincinnati and left an opening for former competitors Republic and Northwest to build a connecting hub here.
The authority expanded the terminal and concourse five times between 1986 and 1999, eventually growing it to 78 gates accommodating as many as 80 aircraft.
Another expansion was planned in 2010, based on 2007, pre-recession passenger and flight data. Once Delta started ramping down the hub, a planned addition of gates in Concourse C was scrapped, and three years later, the airport is looking to actually reduce the facility’s size.
Delta has 32 gates leased through June 30, 2014, and the other carriers have nine gates among them. Officials expect Delta to ultimately reduce to fewer than 20 gates by exercising its option to reduce its terminal footprint.
Officials are actively courting low-cost carriers including Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier and Vision airlines. To date, only Southwest has committed to Memphis, taking over for its AirTran subsidiary in November. Southwest is expected to start modestly and build up slowly.
Chief operating officer Scott Brockman said the authority is in talks with airlines about future space utilization needs and expects to propose an improvement program early next year for public input and discussion and board action.
“My thought is to evolve the airport in a way that allows us to continue to handle transferring passengers but also allow us to efficiently accommodate the local passengers.”
The plan could include demolition of sections of A and C concourses and upgrading of the airport’s earliest, 1961 structure, the Y-shaped B Concourse, such as widening, raised ceilings and more natural light. It would not involve alterations of the terminal buildings, ticket counters and security checkpoints.
Any demolition or construction would require airport board approval.
The concourse revamp could be done while the apron, the aircraft parking area that surrounds the gates, is out of service for reconstruction. Contractors currently are working on the apron around Concourse A and are scheduled to move on to Concourse B next year. Concourse C apron reconstruction is complete.
Brockman said airport officials believe it would be possible to begin a program to modify the concourses in the budget year beginning next July 1 without raising rates on airline tenants. The airport has reduced its debt by more than one-third in the past 10 years, to less than $400 million, giving it leeway to borrow for capital improvements.
“The game has changed, so we need to reinvent our operation based on passenger flows today and into the future,” Brockman said.
Delta Air Lines will eliminate its Memphis hub. Here are the terminated routes and the continued destinations, including number of flights.
How Delta’s de-hubbing affects flights in Memphis
What’s going away?
Columbus, Ohio, 1
Washington (Reagan), 2
Dallas-Fort Worth, 2
Houston (Bush), 2
Las Vegas, 1
Los Angeles (LAX), 2
New York (LaGuardia), 3
Kansas City, 1
New Orleans, 3
Chicago (O’Hare), 3
San Antonio, 1
Salt Lake City, 3
Source: Delta Air Airlines.
(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.