American Airlines announced last week that it would add a slew of new service into Austin, building up the airport that it had already identified as one of the few non-hub flying opportunities it liked before the pandemic hit. Now, it is stepping on the gas in building Austin into a real focus city. The question is, can Austin actually handle all this?
American is adding flights to 10 new domestic cities (Cincinnati, El Paso, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Reno, San Juan, St Louis, Tulsa) and 5 new international cities (Cancun, Liberia, Nassau, Puerto Vallarta, and Punta Cana). It is also adding frequencies and extending seasonal flying in existing markets. In 2019, American was running about 30 to 35 flights a day. By November 2021, that will be up to 75 flights a day. It’s a big increase.
Of course, American isn’t the only one growing here. We’ve seen Alaska bulk up and Southwest too. Sure, international flying is down right now, but it will come back. And the question is… will Austin have enough gates to serve all this growth?
Today, Austin has two terminals. The cheap and distant south terminal is used by Frontier and Allegiant, and that’s not really an issue. We’ll focus on the main Jordan terminal which expanded from 25 to 34 gates in February 2019. Here’s a look at the number of departures by hour using two peak non-holiday Sundays in 2021 and 2019.
Austin Departures Per Hour
Ok, so the highest utilization will occur in the 4pm hour but it’s still well below the airport’s gate limit. Problem solved, right? Well, this was a short post… goodnight and thanks for reading.
Just kidding. There is, of course, much more to this story. First, it’s not really 34 gates here.
According to airport spokesperson Mandy McClendon, one of the gates — gate 13 — has no jet bridge and would only be used for a busing operation. Further, when a widebody operates, it takes up two gate positions. It can use gates 1/3, 2/4, or 4/6. So if you think about peak hour in the late afternoon, and let’s pretend we have two widebodies, we’re really down to 31 gates.
I know, I know. That’s still more than this schedule needs, but don’t forget, it’s not all that perfectly efficient. Notably, departures per hour doesn’t show the exact gate needs at any one time. That’s a deeper look. But more importantly, not every airline can use every gate.
We’re talking about American here, so take a look at its schedule this November.
American Airlines – Austin Departures Per Hour
It will need to have 10 gates available for use at peak time if it wants to run its schedule. Today, American controls only five (gates 23/24/26/28/30). Delta has four (7/8/9/10), United has five (25/27/29/31/33), and Southwest has eight (14/15/16/17/18/19/20/21). Mandy did tell me that each airline has to have at least one gate with Austin’s shared equipment so that other airlines can use it when the primary airline is not.
That leaves 11 gates which are common use (1/2/3/4/5/6/11/12/22/32/34), the first six of which are international-capable. That has to accommodate all the other airlines using the terminal which includes Aeromexico, Air Canada, British Airways, Hawaiian, JetBlue, KLM, Lufthansa, Spirit, Sun Country, Taos Air, Viva Aerobus, and WestJet.
British Airways and KLM both will arrive just after 4pm when they are operating, and Lufthansa pushes back just before they arrive, so that’s four gates out of commission from the common use pool at that peak time. The number of available gates is shrinking, but on the other hand, JetBlue did cancel several Austin flights last weekend, so that helps free up space. Let’s call that a helpful coincidence.
American tells me “We have worked with the AUS airport to make sure gate space is available for our fall schedule.” That settles the question about whether American will be able to find enough space, but it doesn’t say what will happen next year when other airlines start ramping back up again.
Austin has been a very popular place, and several airlines have been clamoring for space. Even with the 9 gate expansion that opened in 2019, Austin could probably already put more gates to good use.
There is a master plan which envisions a midfield concourse being built and connected to the main terminal, but master plans don’t tend to result in immediate gratification. It seems American knew a shortage of gates would be coming, so it decided to plant its flag. Southwest and Alaska have staked their own claims. That’s not great news for Delta’s plans for a focus city, if it ever really did involve additional flying.