Airlines Create Rush Hours, Crowds and Full Flights
American Is Bunching Up Flights in Miami to Create Peaks and Lulls
By Scott McCartney
Sept. 10, 2014 7:31 p.m.
American Airlines is making its hub here more hectic—on purpose.
Instead of spacing flights evenly throughout the day, American in August started bunching them together. The change restores an old format of "peak" scheduling, grouping flights into busy flying times followed by lulls when gates are nearly empty. After Miami International, American next year will "re-peak" schedules at its largest hubs in Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth.
Airlines shunned peak schedules at hubs more than a decade ago because they meant higher costs such as more people and equipment, created too many delays and forced passengers to sprint through terminals to make connecting flights. Recently, though, much of the industry has gravitated back to peaks and valleys as a way to fill seats and generate more revenue.
"An additional person per flight will make a difference," said Robert Isom, American's chief operating officer. The company has estimated it will gain $200 million more a year from re-peaking its schedules at hubs.
American's departure times are bunched together in bursts of activity. But travelers may have even less time to make flight connections or to eat. And, airlines, airports and federal agencies are re-evaluating how they manage baggage, cleaning crews and security checkpoints with the new highs and lows in foot traffic.
Peak scheduling packs planes better because it creates more possible itineraries. Under American's old schedule, a flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Miami might have had 20 possible connecting flights. After the Aug. 19 re-peaking it may have 45. That means more bookings on the Columbus flight, and more people on the connecting flights.
Miami flights have been fuller since the schedule change, said Marilyn DeVoe, American's vice president for Miami. United Airlines says most of its hubs use peak scheduling, except for ultra-crowded Newark, N.J. Delta Air Lines says its Atlanta hub has a fairly steady flow and hasn't fully re-peaked, but hubs such as Detroit, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City operate with busy times and down periods.
In Miami on a typical weekday, 42 flights depart between 9 and 10 a.m. Then between 10 and 11 a.m., only a handful is scheduled to take off. The process repeats during the day with 10 "banks" of flights that fill about 45 gates at a time.
There are added costs to re-peaking. American hired 67 more gate agents and 150 baggage handlers and other ground workers before the August change. It had to purchase more belt-loaders, dollies and tugs that push planes out from gates.
Some restaurants in the Miami airport say they've lost business because passengers no longer leisurely sit and eat meals.
La Carreta, a cafeteria-style food line and sit-down eating area, has seen a 7% to 10% drop in business since American started rearranging schedules. Sales at a food court operated by the same company are down 20%, and at another restaurant, down 25%.
"We've already had to cut back hours of some of our employees," said Raquel Benitez, unit manager for Global Miami J.V., the company that operates the restaurant. Overall, airport concession sales haven't declined, said a spokesman for the airport.
Many passengers say they want the quickest trip possible. Adam Hamlin, who traveled from Bogotá, Colombia, to visit his grandparents in North Carolina, said he doesn't mind close connections or running through an airport. "Airports are not the best place to hang out in all day," he said.
Diego Romero, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., but traveled, last week from Mexico City to Nassau, the Bahamas for business, said he wants "to get home as soon as possible."
American tries to put planes with lots of connecting passengers at nearby gates to cut down on long walks through the 1.1-mile linear terminal, said Suzanne Williamson, American's director of Miami tower operations. The airport has a train to reduce long treks.
A Miami airport air-traffic controller manages takeoffs and landings with American's new peaks-and-lulls schedule. There are pitfalls to airlines' clumped schedules. If bad weather hits at the wrong time, diverted flights and missed connections can cause widespread delays. So far, the schedule has held up well, with an on-time arrival rate of 88% since the Aug. 19 change, according to flight-tracking firm FlightStats.com, a bit better than last year.
Still, American workers have concerns about reliability. "To go into this without being concerned about equipment and all the pieces coming together would be foolish," said Joe Rosende, customer service manager on the ramp in Miami. He said late August was a good time to adjust to new processes before the holiday rush. Mr. Rosende was part of an American study group 10 years ago that spread out the flight schedule, and is now part of changing it back to peaks.
Getting bags onto their next flight is a challenge with shorter connections. Miami handles more luggage than other American hubs, on average, because Caribbean and Latin American travelers typically check lots of bags, according to American.
The airline uses "runners" to hand-deliver carts loaded with baggage from one plane to the next. "Rovers" throw bags that are making the tightest connections into the back of pickup trucks and drive them to their next aircraft. Before, they relied more on a sorting system underneath the terminal—a maze of conveyor belts and scanners that can take 20 minutes to move a suitcase to the right place.
With the peaked schedule, more planes spend extra time on the ground before their next flight, said Mr. Rosende. With the old method, they'd pull in and go out more quickly. Passengers would wait, but not airplanes.
So far, bunching the flights hasn't caused planes to stack up waiting to takeoff, land or get a gate, American says. Air-traffic controllers can use two of Miami's three usable runways for takeoffs when there are lots of departures, or two for landings when several planes are arriving.
For international passengers, where lines to pass through Customs and Border Protection stretched as long as four hours in 2013, American and the airport added more workers to guide them through. With the customs agency, the airport and airline also added automation kiosks, constructed two additional booths for officers, and knocked out walls for new exits in baggage claim to speed passenger flow.
After reducing wait times to enter the U.S. by about 25% at Miami's airport this summer, Customs and Border Protection expects the peaks "will challenge our progress,'' said Acting Deputy Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. But, more agents and automation are coming, too, he said.
Write to Scott McCartney at firstname.lastname@example.org