The Oklahoma/Texas rivalry may be strong in sports, but it doesn’t translate when comparing airports.
Dallas, a 3-hour drive or a brief 50-minute flight away, boasts two major airports—Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a hub for American Airlines, and Dallas Love Field, where Southwest Airlines controls 16 of the 20 gates and is eyeing two more. The much smaller Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, on the other hand, often depends on Dallas connections to get passengers where they want to go, and despite a strong desire to capture travelers’ dollars, airport officials say they can’t compete with Dallas.
Connections in Dallas are plentiful, and include international locales like Paris and Mexico. Despite its name as a “world airport,” Will Rogers can’t fly outside the U.S.
Ultra-low cost airlines Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways operate in Dallas, but not Oklahoma City. Budget carrier Southwest does serve passengers here, but has been heavily focusing on its Dallas Love Field hub, adding flights to Mexico and the Bahamas.
Still, Mark Kranenburg, airports director for Oklahoma City, said there aren’t many people within an hour of Oklahoma City who will drive to Dallas to catch a flight because of the interstate traffic and airport crowding.
“People’s time is worth something to them. It’s not always about the dollar factor,” he said. “People tell me anecdotally all the time: ‘We love Oklahoma City because it’s so easy to get in and out of.’ That’s something we’re really proud of.”
The Oklahoma City airport probably won’t ever be a hub, a reality Kranenburg and others here have embraced. Instead, airport staff in conjunction with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber focus on cultivating flights that offer important connecting opportunities for travelers.
San Francisco is a good example. United added a nonstop daily flight between the City by the Bay and Oklahoma City in August 2011, citing robust demand in the bioscience industry. For many travelers, San Francisco is the destination, but it also offers important connections.
Sympathy for Cleveland
In February, United Airlines announced it is drastically cutting flights in Cleveland, and suddenly, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport lost its hub status. The air carrier is slashing 470 jobs and 60 percent of its daily flights, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It could deliver a serious blow to the city’s economy.
Cynthia Reid, vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said it will take Cleveland a long time to recover and to redevelop its air service.
“With a hub strategy, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket,” Reid said. “We are not a hub market, so what we have to do is make sure we do everything we can to try and expand our air service on multiple levels.”
Hubs are determined by individual airlines, though the Federal Aviation Administration also defines them based on annual passenger boardings. Large hubs are defined by the FAA as having 1 percent or more of the nation’s yearly passengers.
When an airline makes an airport a hub, that airline become the dominant carrier at that airport. And it will often fight to stay dominant if another carrier threatens its status.
Major recent consolidations have caused the airlines to reexamine their flight schedules and implement cost-saving measures, like in Cleveland, once a hub for Continental Airlines before it merged with United.
When the cuts were announced, Jeff Smisek, president and chief executive of United, said in a letter to employees that the hub in Cleveland hasn’t been profitable for over a decade and has been losing tens of millions of dollars in recent years.
Also, Southwest Airlines in 2013 downgraded the Atlanta hub it acquired after merging with AirTran Airways.
Local travel depends
Oklahoma City travelers would be limited if it weren’t for the hub system. More than 20 airports are served nonstop from Will Rogers World Airport, but to travel abroad, or even to much of the West Coast, a connecting flight is essential.
Mike Boyd, an airline analyst for BoydGroup International, said direct service to Boston or Seattle is probably out of reach for Oklahoma City, but through Chicago or Dallas, fliers can get pretty much anywhere.
“A hub system allows places like Oklahoma City to have better connectivity to the world,” he said.
In its consolidation, United is cutting its Cleveland to Oklahoma City connection. No other airline provides direct service to that city.
However, Will Rogers will gain a new nonstop destination when US Airways starts direct service to Charlotte, N.C., this summer.
Kranenburg said the airport fared well through the fuel crisis and economic downturn in 2008.
“We’ve bounced back each time. ... We’re as flush as we’ve ever been in regard to passengers,” he said. The airport logged 1.83 million outbound passengers in 2013.
Airport staff pursues flight connections based on what actually makes sense for the city, not just to add numbers to the board, he added. It’s a competitive market, because airports aren’t just competing against other airports but for limited airline resources.
Asking an airline for a new connection to Oklahoma City is asking them to take a resource out of a city where they are making money and bring it to Oklahoma City — it’s a hard decision and it has to fit into an airline’s intricate network, Kranenburg said.
“Sometimes it takes three or four years to cultivate a route. But our job is to keep it in front of them,” he said.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C., for example, has been on the city’s wish list for years. In 2012 and again in 2013, Oklahoma City was passed over for a proposed route to fill an opening at the busy East Coast airport. But airport officials remain determined to secure that connection eventually.
And though direct flights to Mexico may be on many travelers’ wish lists, pursuing international travel isn’t a high priority for the airport, though it was once offered through a Northwest Airlines subsidiary.
Lacking a customs facility, Will Rogers World Airport can’t accept return travelers from international locales. So if an airline wanted to offer a direct connection to Mexico, it would have to stop in Dallas or Houston on the return trip. The cost, and passenger inconvenience, is not something airlines have been willing to undertake post-9/11, Kranenburg said.
The focus is on domestic service because it is low-hanging fruit, Kranenburg said, but they may down the road look into international possibilities.
With a hub strategy, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. We are not a hub market, so what we have to do is make sure we do everything we can to try and expand our air service on multiple levels.
vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber