CHARLOTTE, NC (Cassie Cope/Charlotte Observer) - New destinations from Charlotte’s airport are giving more options to travelers, as new airlines attempt to compete with dominant carrier American Airlines on some routes.
Since mid-December, American, which operates about 90 percent of flights at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, has added international flights to the Bahamas, Barbados and Mexico. American also added domestic flights to Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; Ithaca, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn.
Meanwhile, Mexican budget airline Volaris debuted recently at the airport offering a flight to Guadalajara, while a regional airline, Contour Airlines added a flight on Saturdays to Tampa, Fla.
The changes come as Charlotte Douglas is investing $2.5 billion in airport renovations designed to improve passenger experiences and add a new runway. “Enhancing the airport, improving the terminal infrastructure, adding flights — these are all good things,” said airlines analyst Henry Harteveldt, based in San Francisco.
Since American merged with U.S. Airways in 2013, the airline has added about two dozen new routes from Charlotte, according to American.
In an October earnings call, President Robert Isom said that in 2020, American will add seven gates at Charlotte, enabling another 75 daily departures.
“We continue to play to our strengths when it comes to our network, adding high-quality, high-margin growth and redeployment opportunities at our most profitable hubs,” Isom said.
Bob Mann, an airlines analyst based in Port Washington, N.Y., said Charlotte is a low-cost hub per passenger for American Airlines because the airport has been managed well, including competitively bidding construction projects.
In 2017 a record 46 million passengers traveled through Charlotte, including connecting passengers. That’s up about 13 million passengers from a decade earlier. The Charlotte airport said it plans to release 2018 passenger data in March.
Harteveldt said Charlotte is strategically important to American. But he cautioned, if flights are not profitable, then American could stop serving the route, reduce the service or fly with smaller aircraft.
At least two of the 23 flights American added to Charlotte in the past five years are no longer offered, including a flight to San Jose, Calif., and Havana, Cuba, according to American.
“Airlines are constantly reviewing their operations in efforts to maximize their profitability,” Harteveldt said. “That’s business.”
American evaluates routes by market demand and whether the route is profitable, airline spokeswoman Crystal Byrd said in a statement.
Expanding international service
In addition to the new flights to Mexico, the Bahamas and Barbados, American has announced plans to add flights this year to Munich starting in March and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, starting next summer.
“We’d like to grow Charlotte’s international network,” Byrd said. “And so, this is the first big step towards that.”
A total of 3.3 million of the airport’s 2017 passengers, or about 7 percent, were traveling internationally, according to airport statistics.
The just-launched American flights include popular vacation destinations.
Adding those nonstop flights saves American travelers time by helping them avoid flying to Miami or connecting in another hub to reach their destinations, said analyst Harteveldt.
“It makes it easier for people who live in Charlotte to reach these great beach destinations,” Harteveldt said.
American’s nonstop daily flight to Guadalajara launched in January, and was announced last year, shortly after Volaris disclosed plans for service between Charlotte and Guadalajara twice a week.
Volaris brings competition, which Hartevelt said will force other airlines to consider to what degree they want to match prices.
On Tuesday for instance, a nonstop flight on Volaris with two carry-on bags from Charlotte to Guadalajara on Jan. 24 and returning Jan. 31 cost $191. By comparison, an American flight, with a carry-on bag and personal item, cost $420 for the same route.
‘Vote of confidence’
For domestic flights, Charlotte’s prices are higher than the national average.
The average domestic flight from Charlotte during the second quarter of last year cost $427, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s $78 more than the national average of $349 during the same period.
That could be because more business travelers fly from Charlotte instead of from other airports, Harteveldt said. Other factors could also influence those figures. For example, flights from Charlotte could also involve longer distances on average, he said.
The new domestic flights are largely targeted toward business travelers, Harteveldt said.
Destinations like Ithaca, where Cornell University is located, and New Haven, home to Yale University, will be useful for people doing business with those institutions, he said.
“Those are definitely not sexy destinations. But it’s important for American because it provides access to important markets,” Harteveldt said.
The ability to fly to the university airports also caters to students, parents and faculty travelers, analyst Mann said.
Other cities that American is adding this year include Erie, Pa., and Traverse City, Mich.
The addition of the domestic and international flights show a priority in Charlotte for American Airlines, Harteveldt said.