So you’ve been looking for a non-stop flight to your favorite vacation destination and discovered, to your dismay, that none exist. What? How can this be? Lots of people travel to this place. Surely the airport can just ask the airlines to offer non-stop service, right? Uh… well, no. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.
The process of establishing new non-stop service can require quite a bit of behind-the-scenes work that can take years to complete. Although I don’t get involved until it is time to start billing, I’ve asked my friends in Business Development a million questions which they have been kind enough to patiently answer. It can be a complicated process, but here’s a look at some of the basics.
The “Easy” Way
Sometimes one of the airlines currently operating at the airport decides to add a new route based on their own research and goals. They already lease gates and counter space. They already have ground crew and ticket agents. There’s nothing that the airport needs to do so… Done! Gee, that was easy!
The “Somewhat Easy” Way
Sometimes a new (or new to us) airline will decide to include us in their route structure. These decisions are usually based on anticipated demand and their ability to operate profitably. They will request specific details about our passengers, facilities and costs which they will review to make a determination about whether to proceed or not.
Once an agreement is reached, the airport will make sure that all the necessary space, equipment and signage is in place for the airline to operate. It takes a bit of effort to coordinate, but over-all this is a pretty simple way to add a new destination to our collection.
The Harder Way
When an airline wants to add a route, it usually happens. When someone else wants an airline to add a new route… well that’s a different story. Sometimes the Airport Authority’s own research will identify an underserved destination. Sometimes the local business community or government entities will identify a need and inquire about adding service. The Business Development team scruitinizes travel data from the Department of Transportation which, among other things, includes the ultimate destinations of all our passengers who took connecting flights. They look for trends try to confirm that there are enough people traveling to specific destinations to perhaps entice an airline to start flying there.
The airport will then approach the airlines with the data they have collected to try to convince them to add a route. We already have relationships with many airlines so these conversations likely begin with some phone calls. The team will also fly to airline headquarters to make their case in person. Pre-covid there were conferences in which a number of airlines and airports would attend and then there would be a series of short, private meetings during which airports could present their cases. A coworker referred to this as “speed dating for airlines.” The airport would get to meet with several airlines at once, but there wouldn’t be a whole lot of time for discussion.
It can be quite expensive to start a new route. It takes time for it to become established and to develop the load factors needed to be profitable. This is where incentives come in. Airports and other entities will offer discounts or waive fees to offset some of the initial costs. This can be a tricky topic since there are some pretty strict rules around what kinds of incentives airports are allowed to offer. Some states will sweeten deal by adding in financial incentives of their own. Even business organizations will sometimes come together and pool funds to be able to offer a finacial incentive to try to get a coveted business destination onto the departures board.
Even if there is a strong incentive package involved, the airline still has some bills to pay. We typically require a deposit which represents a portion of the amount we expect them to pay for things like rent once the incentive period is over. And they have to offer the agreed upon routes for the agreed upon length of time. If the airline decides to terminate the route early, they could be asked to pay back some or all of the incentives they were given.
Unsurpringly, it can sometimes take years of discussions before an airport is able to land a coveted route. We spent at least five years securing a non-stop flight to Seattle. The quest for a flight to Europe has been going on for a decade or more.
So what’s a passenger to do? Well keep traveling to your favorite destination. The more people who fly there, the more attractive it becomes for an airline to start non-stop service. Be patient – these things take time. Be realistic – some routes are just never going to be non-stop. And it wouldn’t hurt to learn to love connections, at least for now.