American has been a big player in Chicago for decades, and that probably won’t change. But United President Scott Kirby is one of the most fierce competitors in the airline industry. If he says he wants to win in Chicago, he means it. One of the only airports with two full-scale airline hubs, Chicago looks like the setting for a battle of the airlines like never seen before in the industry. At the epicenter of the battle is Kirby who last August switched jobs from American, where he was the architect of the carrier’s strategy to match United’s Chicago footprint. Now at United, he has a different goal — to make United the clear leader in Chicago, and perhaps someday drive American out.
“In Chicago, we have massive advantages,” Kirby told United employees recently at a town hall meeting. “If people want to talk about our long-term plan for Chicago, it’s to grow it incredibly, and I hope to someday take over those gates that currently have the AA on them. We have the winning hand here. We should win in Chicago.”
Despite having significantly fewer gates than United Airlines, which is headquartered in Chicago, American operates nearly as many daily flights. And in many cases, it provides more convenient schedules for Chicago-based business travelers, while offering more options for connecting passengers. Plus, American flies to some smaller Midwestern cities United does not. Today, United and United Express operate an average of 530 daily flights, only about 30 more than American and American Eagle, according to figures provided by both airlines. But United has more room to grow, because it has nearly 20 more gates than American, though that gap will soon shrink, with American planning to build five gates.
By rescheduling when some flights leave and depart and adding more flights, Kirby is betting he can strengthen United in Chicago while making American less profitable. In early 2015, under previous management, United made a big deal of doing something that’s common in the airline industry. Instead of scheduling Chicago flights without considering how they would facilitate connections, the airline tweaked its schedule to create banks —or groups of flights that arrive and depart in waves.
In United’s case, all flights from the West Coast might arrive in Chicago at 4 p.m., and then take off for East Coast airports at 5 p.m. That approach makes some connections easier, but according to Kirby, United erred with how scheduled its banks, because it assumed connecting passengers would always travel West to East, or East to West. But that’s not always the case. A United passenger in Indianapolis or Green Bay, Wisconsin might want to connect in Chicago to go to Los Angeles or New York. For Indianapolis customers, connecting in Chicago to reach New York is back-tracking, but not by so much that it’s not a viable option.
Later this year — perhaps as soon as this summer — United will introduce what are called “omni-directional” banks in Chicago. They will allow a customer from Indianapolis to fly East or West from Chicago, and have efficient connections either way.
“We have this huge catchment area in Chicago where customers are going both ways, and we can connect them in both directions,” Kirby said. But the new approach will have another benefit. It will allow United to schedule more flights from Chicago to the West Coast at about 7:30 a.m., a key departure time for business customers. Currently, Kirby said, United does not fly to many West Coast cities until at least 9 a.m., because it does not have enough connecting passengers to fill planes.
But what about the smaller cities that United does not currently service, including Dubuque, Iowa, LaCrosse, Wisconsin and Columbia, Missouri? And what about international flights?
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