Big Planes On Short Routes? What a Concept.

February 15, 2018

IT’S WEIRD, when you think about it. More people are flying than ever before, but they’re doing so in smaller and smaller planes. In the United States, the average commercial jet holds about a third fewer passengers than it did thirty years ago.

When I was a kid, widebody planes were the norm on many domestic flights. Coast-to-coast trips were always on DC-10s, L-1011s or 747s. Even on shorter trips, 250 or 300-seaters were common. I grew up in Boston (where I live still), and American Airlines flew DC-10s between here and Chicago, Los Angeles, and Bermuda; Eastern used L-1011s to Orlando; Delta L-1011s would take you to Bermuda, Atlanta, and Miami. Northwest used DC-10s between Boston and Minneapolis, Detroit, and at one point Washington, D.C. The first Airbus, the A300, was a widebody plane designed specifically for short and medium-haul routes. Eastern operated the A300 on its famous Shuttle between Boston, New York and Washington: a 250-seater on a half-hour flight.

Nowadays, on pretty much all of these routes, you’ll find yourself on a much smaller A319, A320, or in many cases a regional jet. The Boeing 737, a plane conceived in the 1960s for flights of around 300 miles, is used on routes to Hawaii, South America, and even to Europe.

Big plane, small route. An Eastern A300 in the early 1980s.

What’s happened is three things. First, aircraft and engine technology has advanced to the point where smaller jets with limited capacity can be profitable even on long segments. And many of these planes are operated by low-paying regional carriers, to whom the airlines have outsourced much of their domestic flying. Second, the U.S. airline industry has fragmented. There are more airlines flying between more cities. Probably the biggest factor, though, is the way airlines have come to use frequency as a selling point. In a lot of ways, frequency of flights has become the holy grail of airline marketing. Why offer three daily nonstops to LAX using 300-seat planes, when you can offer six flights using 150-seat planes? And so here we are: there are city-pairs all across America connected by a dozen, fifteen, or even twenty flights a day — all in narrow-body jets carrying fewer than 200 people.

One obvious downside to this evolution (devolution is maybe the better word), is a decrease in cabin comfort. An overbooked 737 starts to feel very claustrophobic after that third or fourth hour. But worse, it’s clogged up our airspace and airports. Sure, there are more flights to more cities. There also are more delays.

At no time is the peril of this strategy more exposed than when the weather goes bad. In years past, snow or thunderstorms meant moderate delays and perhaps a cancellation or two. When I flew regional planes in the early 1990s, I remember trudging to work through six inches of fresh snow, and departing on time. These days, a half inch of powder or a line of cumulonimbus brings the entire system to its knees. This is especially so in the northeastern United States, a.k.a. the “Northeast Corridor,” which is so packed with planes that delays are common even on clear days. There’s no slack, no logistical breathing room. Add a little rain, ice or snow, and everything snaps. One day last winter, it took me ten hours to fly from Boston to New York — nine of them spent either waiting in the terminal, as flights were cancelled and departure times progressively rolled back, or sitting in endless de-icing and taxiway queues.

Five of the country’s seven most delay-prone airports are in the Northeast, and three of these (LGA, BOS and DCA) have among the highest concentrations of regional jets.

Airlines don’t sell frequency so much as they sell the promise, or the illusion of it. Under optimum circumstances, it works for both the industry and its customers. But when the weather doesn’t cooperate, it can be a disaster. The question for the consumer is this: would you prefer ten flights a day that might arrive on time, or five flights a day that will arrive on time?

Once upon a time: DC-10s at La Guardia Airport.

We hear a lot about the need to upgrade and modernize our air travel control system. Indeed we should. But although this will help the problem, it’s not going to solve it. This isn’t merely airspace issue; it’s just as much an airports issue. At the end of the proverbial day, there are only so many planes that can take off or land on a runway in a given amount of time, and when the weather closes in that number shrinks. Short of building new runway, or whole new airports, the only real solution is for airlines to better rationalize their schedules and capacity models.

And things might be, if only grudgingly for now, trending that way. Carriers are starting to wean themselves away from their berserk obsession with regional jets, and are at least paying lip service to the idea of decreasing frequencies and increasing aircraft size. Several times in the past month, stories like this one have popped into the news.

Frankly, they have little choice. We’re at a breaking point, and a strategy of flooding the skies with more and more small jets is simply unsustainable.

We could follow the example, maybe, of airlines overseas. Widebodies like the 777 and A330 remain very common on short-haul flights within Asia, while Emirates flies many of its A380s on high-density routes around the Middle East.



Several people have written in voicing their support for high-speed rail as a means of reducing delays. “Here in California,” says one reader, “Completion of the proposed high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco would help cut air traffic congestion at both LAX and SFO.” Better investment in rail is perhaps a good idea, but not for this reason. It is unlikely to have any measurable effect on air traffic. Airlines would likely respond not by cutting flights, but by further reducing aircraft size.

Here in the Northeast, in 2000, Amtrak introduced its “Acela Express,” a quasi high-speed service connecting Boston, New York, and Washington. It quickly became popular with students, businesspeople, and tourists. Yet eighteen years later the number of flights between those same cities is relatively unchanged. Shuttle flights still depart every hour, just as they always have, The only difference is, the planes are smaller. In addition, you now have far more flights to JFK and Newark: JetBlue, Delta, American and United all have multiple daily departures. In 1990 there might have been a half dozen daily flights from BOS to JFK or EWR. Today there are probably twenty.

And remember, too, that a substantial percentage of passengers are connecting at these airports. People flying into JFK, for instance — or SFO or LAX — are often continuing onward to Europe, Asia, or elsewhere.


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90 Responses to “Big Planes On Short Routes? What a Concept.”
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  1. M. Kirk Okay says:

    There was also TWA L-1011 service from Newark airport to JFK. A distance of 27 miles as the crow flies. In the 70s I believe.

  2. M K Okay says:

    Back in the ’70s: American Airlines DC 10 service from Buffalo to LaGuardia, Detroit Metro and LAX. Eastern L 1011 service from Buffalo to Atlanta and Toronto.

    • PeterF says:

      Back in the early 70s: I remember taking an early-evening American DC10 flight from Cleveland to Syracuse, with a stop at Rochester. I think this was the tag end of a run from Los Angeles. No jetways then, went up and down the steps. Just enough time on the Cleveland-Rochester leg to stroll back to the aft lounge for a beer! Those days are gone…

  3. JimmyO says:

    I know this post is a little old, but United seems to be going wide-body domestic here in Denver. I regularly fly to SFO and LAX on United and fly 777s both ways, and SFO has a morning Dreamline flight. I’ve noticed 777s flying from DEN to IAH, ORD, and sometimes, DCA.

    Two 777s fly over my house every evening on their way to SFO and LAX, around 7 pm. I enjoy watching them slowly cruise over and flying them when possible!

  4. Albert Perdon says:

    Regarding the question of big plane versus small plane, you ask, “Would you prefer ten flights a day that might arrive on time, or five flights a day that will arrive on time? My answer, I would prefer a plane every 10 minutes that is always on time. Such a plane – a “big plane” – exists, but is yet to be put in place. A plan to put such a big plane in place has been approved. This plan avoids the problems you experienced when, “One day last winter, it took me ten hours to fly from Boston to New York — nine of them spent either waiting in the terminal, as flights were cancelled and departure times progressively rolled back, or sitting in endless de-icing and taxiway queues.” This plan, while approved, is yet to be carried forth.

  5. Goforride says:

    DC-10’s at LGA? Not a chance.

    • Patrick says:

      Throughout the 1970s and 1980s you could see DC-10s (and L-1011s) at LGA all the time. American, United, Eastern, Delta, TWA. Even into the ’90s.

      Try Google Images if you don’t believe me.

  6. JimmyO says:

    I’ve been regularly flying on United 787s and 777s from DEN to SFO and LAX that past couple years. From what I see, they fly widebodies on these routes daily in the morning and evening, I assume at high traffic times on busy routes. I live under the flight path and for quite a few months, 2 United 777s fly over my house a little after 7 p.m. en route to LAX and SFO.

  7. Saranda Berisa says:

    I am reading this as I am boarding a 717-200 from jfk to fll. Delta are you kidding me? And they are wearing purple outfits that do not represent Delta’s brand. I guess they outsourced it and are hiding the fact. Disturbing to say the least.

    • Jakob says:

      The Delta 717’s are not outsourced though, they are still Delta mainline service. The airplanes involved in outsourced flights usually are branded Delta connection and are embraers and Bombardiers. The purple uniforms are still pretty new, and they are here to stay I think.

  8. Ken says:

    The other issue is the fact that air travel in the US is so archaic. Everything moves so slow. From checking in to getting through security to boarding the plane. If you cumulatively add all of the extra time it takes per person per flight you are guaranteed to increase chances of delay. Bigger planes will probably help, but we have to change the way we interact with our airports to really start to fix the problem…

    • Deke says:

      Hear hear! Every time I come back to the US I am shocked at how slow moving the airports are. From checking in to security to boarding, what happened? Cathay can load an all economy class 747 between Hong Kong and Taipei in the time it takes Southwest to load a typical 737. But it’s not just our airports, or the airlines, it’s us as well. We have been conditioned to be slow!

  9. Michael Finfer says:

    At the moment, the Acela Express runs roughly hourly between New York and Washington and even less than that between New York and Boston. That is infrequent by European standards. The train sets are fixed length, limiting capacity.

    There is new equipment on order which will increase train length and roughly double frequencies, but I don’t think it’ll make much of a difference unless you have trains running at least every fifteen minutes with fares that are consistently comparable to air fares or unless there is a prolonged meltdown of airline service. We may be close to that.

  10. Hugo says:

    Air Canada has Toronto YYZ – Montreal YUL on a 777-300ER. Several times every day.

    • Speed says:

      FlightAware shows only one Air Canada wide body from Toronto YYZ to Montreal YUL — ACA 834, an A333 that continues on to Geneva GVA.

  11. Ben says:

    You might find this article interesting considering it fits into the problems you find with flying smaller and smaller planes. It is mentioned at the very end that twin isle widebodies are mandated to have a disabled accessible lavatory, but not single isle narrowbodies that are everywhere in the US now. Plane cabins are not covered under the Americans with Disabilites Act ADA too.

  12. Michael Roberts says:

    I blame the runway overcrowding on Southwest. No matter where I’m flying, doing it with them involves 2-20 lay overs. When they start flying to Hawaii, I just know they’re gonna make an island or the world’s largest aircraft carrier so they can make you layover in between California and Hawaii!

    • Ben says:

      Southwest also does extremely frequent flight schedules paired with a random first come, first served boarding process. However, I don’t see a layover between California and Hawaii happening simply because there is nowhere to stop between them. It is all ocean, between California and Hawaii, and flights between Hawaii and the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California are the longest flights in the world that have no emergency stops anywhere along the flight path.

  13. Rfa Renthlei says:

    In Mexico Dc-9s (Aeromexico) and 727s (Mexicana) ruled almost all routes. But Aeromexico flew DC-10s exclusively between MEX and JFK, and later on Mexicana flew them exclusively in the MEX-ORD route.

    The shortest flight I took on a widebody was MEX-MTY (about an hour), on a Mexicana DC-10. Second shortes must ahve been Atlanta to Orlando in a Delta L-1011. Both were in the late 80s

    • Patrick says:

      I took an Aeromexico DC-10 from JFK to MEX in 1982, I think it was. I remember the plane was in all-economy configuration.

      Mexicana also flew its DC-10s to LAX.

  14. sanya says:

    Also, take into account airports that are at or near slot restrictions. Airlines must reevaluate their schedules and as more routes are added.Our aviation issues in this country are a result of over capacity airline schedule and poor, old, crowded infrastructure. No matter how much you “improve” the ATC system or the National Airspace – Next Generation or privatization – there’s still no going place to put all those airplanes and people.

    • Ben says:

      It also will be fair to point out that there are some excessive slot restrictions at US Airports that come from the exclusivity of only one airline owning multiple gates to even whole terminals, and there are several of these situations at a single airport. LAX has it especially bad when American, Delta, United, and Southwest have exclusive use of 5 out of the 9 terminals at LAX. Many airports outside the US were even flag carriers have hubs don’t have the airlines owning the gates and terminals so they can increase turnover and landing slots.

  15. At no time is the peril of this strategy more exposed than when the weather goes bad. In years past, snow or thunderstorms meant moderate delays and perhaps a cancellation or two. When I flew regional planes in the early 1990s, I remember trudging to work through six inches of fresh snow, and departing on time.

  16. Speed says:

    From the Wall Street Journal …

    Airlines Add Smaller Jets in Busy Trans-Atlantic Market
    Single-aisle planes increase competition on world’s busiest long-haul routes

  17. K Walsh says:

    Your comments about the number of aircraft and runways affecting congested airspace is right on. Politicians point to technology with no idea what they are talking about. It just seems like there needs to be a better discussion about scheduling vs. capacity than there is. Certainly, FAA technology upgrades will help the en-route space, but then you have the stacks over the airports.
    New airports like Denver were built to provide more runways and less nearby residential housing limiting noise complaints. It is silly that JFK only uses one runway at night for passenger, cargo, and international departures. Rapid rail transit can connect these remote big airports to metro centers, someone just needs to figure out how to pay for it all …


  18. Francis Bwikizo says:

    I have noticed (with sadness) aircraft manufacturers tending away from jumbo jets, with the darling 747 in it’s evening and A321LR and 737ER commanding the sales. May be it’s high time Boeing and Airbus thought about a technology that can fly a twin engine 400 seater across the oceans.
    While I agree that quad-engine and tri-engine commercial jets have been rendered uneconomical for long-haul routes by evolution of technologically enhanced 787s and A330, there’s no reason for the already messed up US airspace to operate small capacity jets of say 120 passengers, be it on short-haul routes. I loved it when i read about Delta’s move away from 50-seater regional jets to bigger size 717s, Embraer’s Cseries and MD-80/90s in the 2000s (according to Seth Kaplan & Jay Shabat in their book “Glory Lost and Found”) as this was not only allowing passengers less stress at congested airports but also allowing them more comfort on board as well as allowing Delta more profits. Let’s also remember that ATC towers in the US are claimed to be out of date and more congestion means more cumbersome load for the ATCs. We have just celebrated a decade or so of a safe air travel in the US, and this clearly deserves to be preserved and a congested airspace is clearly not one of the ways to do that.
    I can excuse a 767, a 757, a 777 an A350 or a dreamliner from Entebbe International airport(Uganda) to Schipol, but I’d not have the same excuse for the same flying from LAX, LaGuardia etc to say Schiphol.

    • Ben says:

      Boeing already has a twin engine 400 pax plus ocean crosser in the 777-300ER with cattle car super slimline seats. Air Canada is exceptionally cattle car with their 777-300ERs in 400 to even 450 pax seats, and they are used on many of their long and ultra long haul flights. The upcoming 777-9X will be longer than the 747-8I that is the longest airliner at the moment, and that will certainly be a 400+ PAX cattle car too.

  19. George says:

    The Acela is a minor incremental improvement over regular rail service. It is about twice the price for a 15% reduction in trip length and slightly wider seats. Think TGV, bullet trains, etc. instead. Once NYC to DC drops to an hour and a half, downtown to downtown, then train will become truly competitive.

  20. Speed says:

    From a Wall Street Journal article about recent orders for large single-aisle jets …

    The single-aisle Max 10 jets can carry up to 230 passengers each and will allow Lion to add about 15 more seats than their existing Boeing 737-900 planes.

    The “trend is to increase density,” said Brendan Sobie, an analyst at CAPA – Centre for Aviation. The decision to buy Boeing’s biggest single-aisle jets is a “no-brainer,” he said, and will allow Lion to increase capacity without adding to the number of flights at choked trunk routes out of Jakarta.

    Several airlines in Asia are looking at the biggest variants of single-aisle jets, such as the Boeing 737 Max 10 and others from its European competitor, as landing slots at major airports remain limited and travel demand keeps rising. For relatively shorter routes of up to five hours, single-aisle planes are cheaper to operate than bigger twin-aisle jets that typically work most efficiently on longer routes.

    Caution! When a decision is called a “no brainer” it often means that no brains were used in making the decision. The conserved brain power will be used to clean up the subsequent mess.

  21. Dana Levin says:

    Also, take into account airports that are at or near slot restrictions. Airlines must reevaluate their schedules and as more routes are added, they should think about adding larger aircraft. Doesn’t necessarily mean wide bodies or heavy’s. A321’s would work and if Boeing gets going on whatever their MOM is plus their MAX10’s, just think how many slots could be opened up at some of the more clogged airports in the US.

  22. Ben says:

    The higher frequency with smaller planes factor I even see with long and ultra long haul non-stop flights across continents now. Many airlines globally have gone from flying 747s at lower frequency to flying 767s, 777s, 787s, A350s, and/or A330s at higher frequency on long nonstop flights.

    • Speed says:

      An example of this is Delta’s “moving” its Asia hub from Tokyo to Seattle. Instead of flying jumbos from the US to the Tokyo hub and then smaller planes to their customers’ final destination, Delta is flying those same customers direct from Seattle.

      From Aviation Week in 2014 …

      The next big project is to build the hub in Seattle. Delta inherited from Northwest the once-famous Tokyo Narita Airport hub, but that is “becoming a harder proposition” for many reasons. A lot of routes into China have become so strong that they justify nonstop service from the U.S. Extended-range aircraft enable carriers to operate farther into Asia. In short: “We are working toward bringing the Asia hub home.”

  23. Speed says:

    Re: High Speed Rail

    Cost for California bullet train system rises to $77.3 billion

    The price of the California bullet train project jumped sharply Friday when the state rail authority announced that the cost of connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco would be $77.3 billion and could rise as high as $98.1 billion — an uptick of at least $13 billion from estimates two years ago.

    Favorite quote …
    The rail authority found that nobody could be sure what was under the ground in Fresno, driving up the cost of relocating sewers, water lines, communications cables and electrical conduits by hundreds of millions of dollars.

  24. Speed says:

    Down the Rabbit Hole.

    I ran across some statistics available from the BTS — Bureau of Transportation Statistics — which includes lots of data about airlines.

    All the numbers are there but not always in a way that answers my questions directly. I’ve listed some numbers that will give us an idea on how many airplanes (air carriers) have been flying around the US between 2003 and 2017. To save some work and time I’ve listed the total number of departures (domestic and international, passenger and cargo, scheduled and non-scheduled) at US airports in June, July and August (the busiest months) for the years 2003 through 2017.

    2003 2,715,061
    2004 2,866,178
    2005 2,925,096
    2006 2,820,199
    2007 2,857,153
    2008 2,764,525
    2009 2,601,638
    2010 2,598,511
    2011 2,595,725
    2012 2,534,654
    2013 2,504,863
    2014 2,462,597
    2015 2,442,111
    2016 2,457,942
    2017 2,477,581

    Despite the move to smaller jets, total traffic (which is what an arriving pilot sees) has been trending down.

    Maybe traffic at JFK and BOS is up. I’ll dig some more.

  25. Ted Cook says:

    I wonder if we will see a purpose built 3K range twin aisle. The DC-10, L1011, A300, 767-200/300, but nothing since about 1985. Not exactly the NMA, which will be a little large at 4,500nm range, and the wingspan may take up too much airport space.
    But there is the possibility of a second wing on the NMA. Southwest could be the driver for this aircraft. Smaller span/folding, lighter wing/engine combo for 3K range? I’d like to see it happen, but it is a big investment. If that doesn’t happen, I hope they make the NMA light enough to see use on the mentioned city pairs of twin aisles past.

    • Jakob says:

      An airplane like that does exist, it’s the a330 regional. It had a higher capacity but lower range than the standard a330, but airbus only sold a few to Saudia airlines. Despite this, there will be an a330 neo regional, which has the same concept. As for Southwest, their low cost operations are possible by having a relatively uniform fleet, so new Southwest airplanes other than the 737max are very unlikely I’m afraid.

  26. Speed says:

    High speed rail is a complex concept. How fast? How many stops? Maximum throughput on a double track? And then the big one — how much will it cost to build and who will pay? Why replace a 500 mph transportation mode with a 200 mph (optimistically) mode?

    What would air transport look like if the money for “high speed rail” was spent instead on airports? Money spent on one hub airport improves service to many cities, not just (in the case of California’s current project) LA and San Francisco.

    • David T says:

      High-speed rail is commonplace in Europe, and in many ways it is preferable to air travel. You don’t spend time in security lines and enduring all of the other indignities of air travel. You just have to be on the train at the time of departure.

      I spend much of my time in Europe, and I would much rather spend four hours on a train, versus a 90-minute flight. It’s much more comfortable, less stressful, and when you figure in travel time to the airport, etc., it doesn’t take much longer on short-haul flights. I would take a high-speed train from LAX to SFO any day rather than a flight.

      Anyone who spends time outside of the U.S. knows the advantages of rail travel versus air travel.

      • Simon says:

        I lived in several European countries for many years. I loved their high-speed trains (TGV, ICE, AVE, ES).

        That said, one key advantage they have is that their high-speed trains connect to extensive urban and local transit networks that offer frequent connections to almost anywhere. That won’t exist here in CA. Even if we built an awesome 200 mph Shinkansen-like rail connection from SF to LA, what happens when you arrive in LA? You need to get a rental. Or when you get to SF, how do you get to eg. Santa Cruz or Calistoga? BART/bus AND Lyft? Probably rental again. But if you need to get a rental anyway, you might as well just fly and then get that rental.

        Furthermore, Europe doesn’t have TSA. They will FOR SURE manage to make long-distance train travel just as inconvenient as air. So no hopping on/off high-speed trains as in Europe either. And I won’t even start about the comparably longer distances. SF-LA is by US standards comparably short. But it’s similar to Hamburg-Munich or Toulouse-Paris which is at the limit of what even train-friendly Europeans do by rail. There is no way we could use high-speed rail to connect in a similar fashion let’s say SF-Denver, Seattle-LA, or NYC-Chicago.

        I’m a huge high-speed rail fan, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to use that route to get around fixing air travel in the States.

      • MikeRTW says:

        I have two words for everyone when it comes to trains: Shinkansen Nozomi

        Get a couple of those up and running between large city pairs here and it would destroy short haul air travel. (LAX-SFO; BOS-NYC-PHL-DC; TPA-MCO-FLL-MIA; DFW-AUS-HOU; LAX-LAS) etc.

    • Rob says:

      The Eurostar from m Paris to London is 2h:15. This eliminates travel to/from airports. Have to repeat customs and immigration at arrival station, hence saving more time. But longer routes can be slower and unprofitable

  27. Loyd Enochs says:

    Another reason to decrease frequency is the coming shortage of pilots. Fewer pilots = fewer flights.

    But I am just an amateur. A professional pilot knows the actual pilot crunch all too well.

  28. chandelle says:

    I know this isn’t germane to the US but EK does fly A388s between DXB and places like KWI and JED, and 77xs to MCT, DMM, BAH, RUH and BSR.

  29. dave divelbiss says:

    Nice article,

    What a concept indeed!


  30. Carol says:

    I have to admit I haven’t been on a significantly delayed flight in years. I now live in California and mostly fly Southwest (packed, but they make it easy to change flights without penalty) and Alaska Air. That said, air travel has lost its glamor. I would so rather take Amtrak, but it’s often expensive and a few hours slower than I’d prefer.

  31. Neil Cosentino says:

    Beyond NextGEN Global Airports will help solve this airspace capacity problem

  32. Roger Wolff says:

    I’ve been thinking about a similar problem: Why does everyone prefer to have a car instead of just having much better “public transport”.

    Would everybody drop “I own a car” when you could order the self-driving vehicle on your doorstep with ease?

    One of the things that puts people off of the public transport thingies is that when you have a car, you’re on track to be precisely on time at your meeting and as you close your front door you remember you forgot something. You go back, grab the item and head for the car again. 2 minutes delay. You’ll be two minutes late for your meeting. Or you can try to drive a bit faster and be on time anyway.

    But when you’re on schedule to precisely catch the 10:14 bus, you’ll precisely not catch the bus if you have to go back to grab that item. You’ll have to get the next one and be say 15 minutes late. And there is no “drive faster” to make up for the delay.

    Once you have say a subway that runs every few minutes, THEN you can go back and arrive a few minutes later.

    Reducing the time between traveling options is very important to people. They would like it that if they end up at the airport 15 minutes earlier than required, that they could arrive at their destination 15 minutes earlier as well!

    For the car vs bus/subway/train discussion people also want to have their own private space. Not relevant here.

    • Ben says:

      You bring up a great point in that service frequency is directly tied to service reliability. If it is not frequent, it is not reliable in the eyes of many.

  33. AO says:

    Thank you for this article! Will you please send it to EVERYONE – politicians, media, traveling public, tax payers, apparently the airlines, NATCA, etc., etc.

    Our aviation issues in this country are a result of over capacity (airline schedule) and poor, old, crowded infrastructure. No matter how much you “improve” the ATC system or the National Airspace – NextGen or privatization – there’s still no going place to put all those airplanes and people.

    Out of the dozen articles I’ve read about privatizing ATC, NO ONE every brings up the issue of crappy U.S. airports. Thank you.

  34. TJ says:

    Cabin comfort has absolutely nothing to do with the size of the airplane but with simple matters of seat design such as pitch, width, recline geometry, and amenities like power, Wi-Fi and IFE.

    I would very, very happily trade the coach seats on an American 767 for SWA’s 738 with 33-inch seat pitch for a transatlantic flight. I prefer the original cushy Boeing Sky seats to the new skinny seats but they’re not so bad either. As I mentioned on another comment thread, an IFE systems box in my personal item/foot cubby is also a real drag. American crams the coach seats in 31-inch rows and 17 inches width. Oh, and this ocean crossing flight has no IFE, but the armrests on your seats still have welded shut ashtrays on them from a different era of flight.

    Or maybe I’m shooting fish in a barrel with AA. How about LH? Their 747 has the seats just as crammed, but they do give you a solid 45 degree incline, which is great until you discover that you may not want to recline but the person in front of you is all the way down, head in your lap. Did you want to use that tray table? TS.

    Now, if the plane isn’t completely full (which is very rare nowadays), you can really spread out – Last year on one of Air Berlin’s last transatlantic flights I found myself on a 30% occupied A330 and snuck into a center-group of four coach seats for a lie-flat.

    • Speed says:

      For me, an empty center seat in three abreast is almost as good as first class — especially if I have work to do. S-p-r-e-a-d O-u-t.

  35. phoenix says:

    Well blame technology. Modern turbofans have made single-aisle airliners more capable than ever. And with the Embraer E170 and E190 brought “big jet” features and passenger experience down to the 75 and 100-seat capacities (and economics, which makes operating routes with these aircraft feasible.)

    Oh yeah blame business travellers too. They voted with their wallets, and they want frequency more than a big plane.

  36. Reading this Pat, I couldn’t help but think of an opinion article by Tim Wu in this weekend’s New York Times. The writer discusses many of the downsides of convenience but the one that resonated with me on reading your post about airlines adding frequency is Wu’s prediction that convenience will dominate our existence, sometimes at great cost. IN the case of airlines feeding the demand for more convenience in the form of more frequent flights on the same routes, the price is more congested airspace as you point out. I’m imagining more fuel is consumed as well. Increasing the number of flights on smaller planes probably does not result in less fuel per passenger flown. Correct me if I am wrong. On the other hand, what is an airline to do? As the Wu suggests, we are spoiled by immediacy. Convenience is the holy grail. Companies either make things easy for the customer or get left behind. Dilemmas, dilemmas, everywhere one looks.

    • John Haren says:

      Well, that’s what regulation is for. The government (no, please, stop laughing) could step in and force the necessary change.

      ♫ you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one ♫

  37. Speed says:

    Patrick wrote, “This isn’t merely airspace issue; it’s just as much an airports issue.”

    As Patrick’s writing often does, this post sent me on a data-hunt which turned up the web site City Pairs, a product of our own (US) FAA. It provides three interesting metrics for a number of major city pairs:

    o Average Airborne Time
    o Effective Gate-to-Gate time
    o Airborne Distance

    No info on how long the wait is for checked baggage.

  38. Matt D says:

    All good points. But not totally accurate. I’d say the industry isn’t so much fragmented as it is clustered. Small and medium sized cities across the nation have had service either drastically cut back or eliminated entirely. I’d wager to guess that 90% of all flights are now between just the 20 or 35 largest cities. So therein lies the problem. Everyone chasing the same pax.

    The other irony is that despite this, Boeing has effectively abandoned the 100-149 seat market. It says a lot when their 180 seater is now their baseline model.

    They made a huge mistake discontinuing the 737 Classic (-300, -400, -500) models, which were perfect for what they did along with the 717. The reasons for that are probably another discussion for another day.

    Say what you want about the 737. It’s the small CRJ’s and ERJ’s that are mostly responsible for this crowding.

    • mitch says:

      Matt, the customers abandoned the market, not Boeing. The “Next Generation” 737’s were [nearly] the same size as their Classic predecessors; the MAX’s follow the NG’s.

      737-300 = 737-700. The MAX7 was to be the same as the -700, but hardly anyone bought it until Boeing added two rows [12 seats]

      737-400 = 737-800 but the -800 added 4 rows; the MAX8 is the same size as the -800. By far the best-selling of all current 737 models

      737-500 = 737-600; the runts of both litters. They were the same size as the original 737-200. The -600 was such a poor seller [only 69 sold] that there will not be a MAX6

      The 737-900 = MAX9; the upcoming MAX10 will be a stretch too far.

      • Ben says:

        And the first gen 737-900 was such an under-performer that Boeing had to do a midlife upgrade to it in the 737-900ER. The 737-900 is no longer made, only the 900ER upgrade and the succeeding MAX-9.

  39. Simon says:

    Speaking of larger aircraft, could you explain why aircraft always seem to grow (both in size/pax, but also in range) shortly after introduction?

    The 762 was quickly pushed to the side by the 763, US carriers all started on the 772 but now can’t order 77Ws fast enough. The 788 is barely selling now that the 789 is available. The 779 is expected to easily outsell the 778. And I guess we’ll see how the 350-1000 does vs. the 350-900.

    Why do A/B even start out small if the airlines then later want to order bigger? Or what part of the early manufacturing process makes way for larger versions to become more competitive so that they end up taking more and more orders?

    • Patrick says:

      Actually, sales of the 77W have been minimal in North America. American and United have a couple of dozen each, at most. Air Canada has some. Delta has none at all.

      • Simon says:

        Exactly. They all started out on the 772, but the latest T7 orders have all been 77W. And that’s my question. What is it that makes it more economical for airlines to purchase larger or longer-ranger variants of a type as its production cycle gets older? Why do airlines tend to order small early, but large later?

        • Carlos Si says:

          Often times (if not always) operating costs are not that much higher for the stretched variant so it’s like the extra seats are discounted.

          Of course then you’ve got extra weight. I’m no expert but I believe that’s the general premise (I believe this is the case for the 788-789 and a338-a339, with the stretch selling significantly more).

          • Carlos Si says:

            Or rather, you have more seats to split the costs with.

          • Simon says:

            Thanks, Carlos. A very interesting point.

            I would have assumed that the extra weight leads to extra fuel burn. So in order for the stretch to make economic sense the airline has to be certain it will fill all those extra seats all the time.

            I wonder then, is this more viable in times of low fuel costs? If oil eventually goes back to $120/barrel, will airlines rediscover their love for the ‘original’ unstretched variants? Are they now simply gambling on low fuel costs and rising passenger numbers? And if so, was that also the case for 762->763, 332->333, or even the push from 736 towards 739?

          • Carlos Si says:

            I’m not sure if I could answer that question. Higher fuel prices hurts when flying older aircraft due to fuel efficiency, I’m not so sure about stretched variants. I did a quick search for airliner operating costs and found this.


            Comparing United’s 762 versus 763 operating costs, it’s about a $1000 difference (13%), however, the cost per available seat mile is lower for the 763 by 0.3. Think of it this way; imagine if the a318 was shrunk thrice more to an a315. The aircraft would be relatively heavy for the amount of passengers and cargo it’s carrying unless you re-designed the aircraft (scale down the wing and make it less wider and longer). I’m not sure what other factors airlines use to determine fleet configuration, and whether they may have more weight (no pun intended) than CASM efficiency.

  40. Speed says:

    Landing Slots!

    A landing slot, takeoff slot, or airport slot is a right granted by an airport owner which allows the slot holder to schedule a landing or departure during a specific time period.

    We already have them at some high-traffic airports. But if a finite number of slots (based on airport capacity) were auctioned every year at all airports the total traffic at an airport would be limited and larger aircraft would be supreme. Can’t use an expensive slot on a 50 seat RJ.

  41. Rob says:

    Well, last week I had the pleasure of taking Asiana on a short haul flight from Tokyo to Seoul aboard an A380 (OZ101 – 2.5 hrs). I did think it was a bit overkill, but very nice indeed!

  42. Speed says:

    “Short of building new runway, or whole new airports, the only real solution is for airlines to better rationalize their schedules and capacity models.”

    I vote for more runways and more airports. In the Seattle area, Everett (Snohomish County Airport, KPAE) will soon open a passenger terminal.

    When the passenger terminal opens in September 2018 it will have service from three airlines and will already operate at its full capacity. [ … ]In January 2018, Alaska announced that [ … ] all flights from Everett would be operated by its regional subsidiary, Horizon Air using the Embraer 175 regional jet [ … ]. Alaska plans 13 daily flights to several west coast destinations: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange County, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose. United Airlines announced on August 10, 2017 that six flights a day will be operated to its hubs in Denver and San Francisco. Southwest Airlines announced on January 25, 2018 their intention to serve the airport with five daily flights, but the destinations of those flights have not yet been disclosed.

    If airports weren’t government monopolies airport capacity (per airport or per city) would more often be expanded or shrunk to match demand.

    • Alan Dahl says:

      They still would have to deal with the local community and in the case of Paine Field it’s the local community that’s forcing the airport to limit commercial flights, not the airport management.

  43. ReadyKilowatt says:

    This is mostly a result of more efficient engines. Much like more efficient water heaters led to soaking bathtubs because the cost of flying small jets is the same as larger jets of old the airlines simply chose to increase frequency, which has a lot of other benefits for customers. After all, why should I have to get up at 4:00am to drive to DEN in order to catch a 10:00 flight when there’s going to be 3 more later on in the day. Now in my case I prefer the that 10:00 flight since there’s going to be less turbulence and if I should miss it there’s a better chance of catching a later flight. One flight a day, take it or not, seems a little less friendly too.

    Then there’s what to do about it. Seems to me more use of smaller airports might make sense. When I fly to PIT I’d much rather fly to JST, but that’s not really feasible because the cost difference is exponentially higher. No doubt because the number of people flying into JST is minuscule. But I’ll bet there are enough people who’s final destination is far enough east of PIT that the ground travel time would be about the same or less. Sure the “experience” of flying out of JST isn’t the same as PIT (heck, it might be better in many ways), but if the result is the same who cares?

  44. Alan Dahl says:

    The same downsizing is also true on regional routes. In 1976 when I was 18 I unexpectedly found myself at SFO needing to go to LAX without a ticket. All of the flights SFO-LAX on UAL (I had a UAL pass because my dad was a pilot) were full so it looked like I would be stuck. But then I discovered an anachronism called the “Valley Queen’, SFO to Stockton to Merced to Visalia, all in a 737! Today these places would be served by at best a Q400 or a small regional jet but then they got a mainline airliner. Perhaps its time to look at doing that more as well?

  45. Jennifer Moore says:

    Thank you. Well said and agree 100%.

  46. Daniel Ullman says:

    “DC-10s, L-1011s or 747s” err, it might because is much cheaper to fly twin engine planes to these places especially after the 737 began to whole heartily replace the 707,727 and the Douglas greatest hits.

  47. JIm says:

    Just got around to listening to the Inspired Pilot podcast where you were featured. Good piece.

  48. JIm says:

    I remember in the 90s flying a B-747 from KL to Singapore, and almost everywhere in Japan. NRT-Osaka,Hokkaido, etc. Reconfigured to all economy class. Maybe 400 pax.

    • Jinxed_K says:

      Yep, I rode those as a kid in Japan and remember there were so many seats just packed together in economy. The B-747SR has between 530-550 seats.

  49. Kathy says:

    In Mexico Dc-9s (Aeromexico) and 727s (Mexicana) ruled almost all routes. But Aeromexico flew DC-10s exclusively between MEX and JFK, and later on Mexicana flew them exclusively in the MEX-ORD route.

    The shortest flight I took on a widebody was MEX-MTY (about an hour), on a Mexicana DC-10. Second shortes must ahve been Atlanta to Orlando in a Delta L-1011. Both were in the late 80s

    • Patrick says:

      When I was a sophomore in high school, I took an Aeromexico DC-10 from JFK to Mexico City. That was 1982, I think.

      I also remember seeing Mexicana DC-10s at LAX, around that same time.

      • Kathy says:

        I may not have been very clear. I meant the MEX-ORD flight by Mexicana used only DC-10s, though the planes might have been used on other flights. These days

        I traveled MEX-JFK round trip twice in Aeromexico in the 80s, BTW. Once was in summer 1982, where I connected with El Al to Tel Aviv. Maybe we were on the same plane! (though likely not at the same time).

  50. zecrunch87 says:

    Hello #askthepilot,

    Thank you for this very topical article … passenger air traffic grew firmly last year in most regions, notably in Asia-Pacific … there are now 10 airports with 70+ million yearly passengers and 50 with 40+ million.

    As you rightly point out, congestion is getting worse, in large part due to issue of flying smaller planes to unreasonable levels of Frequency … I would say this has been more of an issue in the USA in the last 20 years… but the trend is starting to reverse … let me explain why:

    1) If one looks at the ‘Big 3’ + Southwest order books, they almost exclusively up-gauge to larger planes … while most of the planes ordered were A319/A320/737-700 now airlines are mostly ordering B737-8MAX and A321neo (A319neo and B737-7 MAX sell very poorly) … I would say it is part congestion, part the fact they have lower unit costs, part increased crew costs. The same phenomenon is there in Europe. So a couple of years down the line, while there will probably be at least as many flights, planes will be materially larger

    2) On the other hand, widebody planes are getting smaller … routes that were once covered by 747s are now mostly operated by 777/787/A350/A330

    We are in a situation where widebody/long-haul planes are getting smaller while narrow-body/short-haul planes are getting bigger … which brings us to the supposed Middle or Market plane Boeing will hopefully develop to improve on-ground turnaround and comfort… cheers

    • Ben says:

      Ironically Boeing had it with 757, but pulled the plug on it because the 737 became low cost carrier cash cow.

  51. Tom T says:

    As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, where the biggest airport is subject to flow control every time there is fog…weird that this might happen in San Francisco, I know…I would love to see bigger planes/lower frequency on SFO LAX. I’ve held this opinion for the last couple decades.

  52. Tom says:

    I remember as recently as the mid 1980’s flying from Buffalo to Atlanta on an Eastern L-1011 — which had originated in Toronto (a 30 minute hop across Lake Ontario to BUF) and there were probably fewer than 30 other passengers in the main coach cabin. Oh, and there was an edible meal, too. Those were the days (sigh).

  53. High-speed trains, such as the one tentatively under construction between the Bay Area and LA, would free up airport space at both ends.

    • SFO-LAx via underground transit? I can’t imagine being stuck on a train in a tunnel that will be built through an active earthquake fault zone. Even one of the frequent, small earthquakes, which are pretty common, could probably cause enough damage, however subtle, to the rails, and create a catastrophe.

  54. Roger says:

    It can also be addressed by financial incentives. Many of the fees incurred by the airline are based on number of passengers or plane weight. If the minimums were increased (eg the airline pays the same for a 75 or 150 seat plane, as for a 250 seat plane) then it would make more sense to use larger planes.

  55. Planely Obsessed says:

    Wasn’t Eastern 855, the L-1011 which had a triple engine failure, such a short flight that the crew opted to just turn around and fly back to Miami on approach to Nassau?

  56. Chris Jones says:

    I recall taking a 747 from Boston to NYC in the late ’70s for $120. Almost empty, but I needed to get to JFK to meet my mother returning from Switzerland, and United (I think) was happy to fill a seat that was going to be empty on that leg of a Boston-NYC-Madrid flight.