“Can we take a direct flight back to reality, or do we have to change planes in Denver.
Tim Allen

Why Are There So Many Connecting Flights?

This blog was written before the COVID Pandemic. The COVID epidemics played havoc on the travel business. In 2022, Fifty Plus Nomad decided to focus on traveling and living in Mexico and language learning posts. We will only update these long-term travel-related posts on a time-permitting basis. We would appreciate your comments and updates on these posts.

See my related post: Flight Schedule Changes: Simple Tips to Keep Flight Changes from Destroying Your Trip.

If you are lucky to become like me, a Fifty Plus Nomad., you will soon probably discover that one of the few annoyances you experience regularly is horrible flight connections. Why do airlines make us suffer so? Either you will be in an airport for hours or sprint like a football player from one side of the airport to another.

The simple answer: the hub-spoke route system. Airlines would have more point-to-point (nonstop) flights at reasonable costs if they didn’t save money by having all their routes scheduled through a few hubs.

They typically only offer nonstop flights on significant business routes. They know business travelers are willing to pay a fortune to avoid connections, and leisure travelers are unwilling to pay for nonstop flights. (Often, the difference in cost between connecting (hub and spoke routes) and point-to-point flights is between 10% and 400%. Sometimes, point-to-point flights aren’t even available).

What Are Differences Between the Hub-Spoke and Point-to-Point Model?

Under a hub-and-spoke model, airlines arrange the bulk of flights to one or more central hubs. Under a point-to-point system, most flights go directly between two destinations.

For example, let’s say you are flying between Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio. Using a hub-and-spoke model, you would fly from Los Angeles to several hubs and then connect to another flight from these hubs to Columbus. (Hubs on these routes include: San Francisco (United), Chicago (United/American); Denver, Houston (United); Dallas (American); Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis (Delta), etc.).

Using the hub-and-spoke model, you have many options for flights per day, but the trip is long (usually a minimum of seven to eight hours). Using the point-to-point model, you fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Columbus.

Flying point-to-point (or nonstop), the trip lasts three-and-a-half hours, and there are fewer flight choices. (There are two flights a day on this route.)

Rarely nowadays; however, it was commonplace in the past that airplanes would make a stop in another city. (A flight from Los Angeles to Columbus probably stopped in Chicago or Denver). Airlines call these “direct flights” since you do not have to change planes; if you change planes, it is called a connecting flight. 

Airlines often charge more for nonstop flights than connecting flights. For example, when I checked the cost of flights from Los Angeles to Columbus, I found that the nonstop flights, on average, cost between $50-$100 more than routes that required a connection.

Consumers (including myself) are often willing to pay more for a nonstop flight than one that requires a connection to avoid the time and hassle of making a connection.

Why Do Airlines Prefer the Hub-Spoke Model?

Airlines prefer the hub-and-spoke model to the point-to-point model. The hub and spoke model enables airlines to connect the maximum number of destinations with minimum routes.

The hub and spoke model also allows the airlines to have a significant operations base, bringing many benefits. Some of these benefits include the ability to:

  • Use a small number of aircraft and pilots to cover many destinations.
  • Increase routing options between any two destinations. The hub and spoke model allows airlines to keep their planes in the air for extended periods. It also affords passengers more extensive flight choices. (This is also why airplanes usually do not stay in the airport long before they take off for another destination).
  • Quickly respond if demand increases or decreases on a given route. Let’s say that Columbus suddenly gets a significant company, which increases the demand for tickets to Columbus. With the hub-and-spoke model, airlines can increase the number of flights from several hubs to Columbus to tap into the market from all over the US.
  • Centralize complicated operations such as cargo sorting, accounting, and passenger switching at a few main airports. (Centralizing operations saves “beaucoup” bucks).

Disadvantages of the Hub-and-Spoke Model

Despite the above-noted advantages, the hub-and-spoke model also causes the following problems:

  • Congestion and delays at hub airports. Airlines schedule multiple incoming and outgoing flights during a short time frame. Scheduling flights this way allows airlines theoretically to limit waiting times and provide many possible connections for passengers. In reality, however, this type of scheduling often causes problems, including:
    • Too many airplanes arrive simultaneously, causing delays due to the scarcity of taxis, runways, and gates.
    • Foul weather in one significant hub routinely causes hundreds of canceled or delayed flights throughout the US. (Airports could control the number of take-offs and landings).
  • Airlines achieve too much dominance in the hub city. The dominant airlines squeeze out competing airlines in their hub cities. (In some cities, like Minneapolis (Delta), more than 90% of all traffic is one airline. Only a few major airports in the US, like JFK-New York, Chicago-O’Hare, and Los Angeles, serve as a hub for more than one airline). As a result, consumers have little choice but to take the dominant airlines if they live in a hub city (or in a town with a small airport close to the hub city).
  • Consumers who live in a hub city that stops functioning as a hub see:
    • A substantial reduction in flight availability.
    • A sometimes significant increase in the cost of the few remaining flights. 
  • Conversely, an airport can become oversaturated after an airline increases its operations at a particular hub airport. Newark Airport, for example, has not recovered from United Airlines’ decision to make it a significant hub (after United merged with Continental) in 2010. Instead of being an alternative to overcrowded JFK, Newark is now infamous for its awful facilities and frequent delays.

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Want Some Suggestions on How to Improve Your Experience with Connections?

Check out this post from Traveling Moms.

Additional Long-Term Travel Posts from Fifty Plus Nomad

Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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