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Why Am I Late?

Tom Kubik

WHEN I STARTED flying for American Airlines in 1978, the industry was regulated. Routes, fares, airline size, pretty much everything the airlines did was controlled by the Civil Aeronautics Board. Then, later that year, the Airline Deregulation Act became law. Overnight, rules governing the industry changed.

This had far-reaching effects. But the biggest change was the cost of airline tickets. They became a lot cheaper.

Over the next 40 years, established carriers went bankrupt and disappeared. Others reorganized under bankruptcy laws. New carriers came in. Fares dropped, new routes opened and flying became as common as bus travel.

Capitalism works well, as you know. Today, pretty much anyone can fly at a very reasonable cost, as opposed to the old days when only upper-income folks could afford a ticket.

The airlines were a service business when I started. You were treated as a loyal customer. Polite employees served you as you traveled on their airline. It morphed into a commodity business by the time I retired. The commodity is the seat you buy. The service aspect is not so common today.

Getting you there on time is about the best you can hope for. The on-time performance is dependent on the way the carriers run their schedules, which is a major reason for cheap tickets. It’s called hub-and-spoke. Fly everyone to a central hub, then spoke them out to their destinations.

Federal Express pioneered the hub-and-spoke concept with packages in 1973. I actually flew for them from 1976 to 1977 and saw it firsthand. It worked spectacularly well. With deregulation, the airlines figured out they could do the same thing with people. Unlike going solely back and forth between two airports, hub-and-spoke keeps airplanes flying and making money pretty much all day and night.

Costs came down, and some of those savings showed up as cheap tickets. Thanks to the cheaper fares, people didn’t mind being treated as packages. Still, with hub-and-spoke, the occasional snafu can make your travel experience very frustrating.

Let’s say you want to go from Savannah to Des Moines to see the kids. You book a 1 p.m. flight that will get you to Des Moines at 6 p.m. Neither of the two airports is a hub. Both are spokes. That means you have to fly to a hub airport from SAV, so you can travel on to DSM.

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At the hub airport, likely Charlotte, you’ll change planes to go on to DSM. You’ll have an hour or less to connect to your flight in CLT. Normally, that isn’t a problem.

But wait, there’s a problem. The flight from SAV is on an airplane that started its day in Miami at 8 a.m. and has to go to CLT first to drop off its MIA passengers. Then it loads up with some passengers and takes them to SAV, where it becomes your flight to CLT. But there was a delay this morning in MIA due to a brake problem on the airplane.

That fix delayed the flight to CLT. It was just 30 minutes late. But by the time it got turned around to SAV, that delay was now 40 minutes. You depart SAV 50 minutes late. These delays put you into CLT with just 10 minutes to get to your DSM flight. Uh-oh. You just missed it because it’s 20 gates from your incoming flight.

No problem—you’ll get the next one. But the next one is full, so the airline rebooks you on the one after that. After four hours enjoying your time in CLT, your rebooked DSM flight is now ready.

Except that airplane has amassed a two-hour compounded delay for similar maintenance and weather issues. Eventually, you get to DSM. Instead of 6 p.m., you land in Des Moines at midnight. That can be frustrating.

In a nutshell, this is one of the major problems with airline travel. Normally, everything runs pretty well. But when the weather gets bad or the airplane needs fixing, the delays compound. An easy day on paper turns into one that’s very long and sometimes stressful.

There are many other issues that can delay or cancel originating or connecting flights. Recently, we’ve seen a lack of flight crews due to COVID virus issues. Mostly, though, the weather plays the biggest role in delays.

The system is very busy on a daily basis. The domino effect of bad weather 10 states away can sometimes wreak havoc on the entire system. Although we are mostly at the mercy of the airlines’ systems and Mother Nature, I can give you one very big tip to make things go easier: If you’re thinking of moving or downsizing for retirement, consider being near a hub airport city.

We live near Charlotte. We can pretty much go wherever we want to go nonstop. That’s a big deal. We’ve been able to fly directly to some towns that didn’t have air service before deregulation. This was another benefit of the law that changed everything in 1978.

Hub cities such as Denver, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Phoenix and Minneapolis are solid choices. All those cities can offer a lot of amenities, in addition to nonstop flights to pretty much anywhere. It’s something to consider.

Tom Kubik recently retired from American Airlines after 42 years as a pilot. Working on both the management and union side of the business, he saw prosperity, bankruptcy and the disappearance of pension plans. Faced with this upheaval, he also had a side business as a homebuilder. Today, Tom and his wife still travel extensively. Three children and seven grandchildren keep them on the go. Tom’s previous article was The Unfriendly Skies.

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John Yeigh
John Yeigh
4 months ago

Flew for the first time in 2 years in December and had to spend 7 wonderful hours in CLT due to a just missed connection. You nailed it.

Donny Hrubes
Donny Hrubes
4 months ago
Reply to  John Yeigh

Hek, I’ve missed a connecting bus that way! 🙁

betsy larey
betsy larey
4 months ago

I don’t travel as much as I used to, but when I do I use miles for first class. That, along with TSA pre and a cab to the airport makes it a lot more tolerable. I live in Mpls 6 months and Jacksonville 6. Agree 100% on being near a hub. I can’t stand Atlanta airport

Gary Palmer
Gary Palmer
4 months ago

I’m glad I don’t fly anymore, as I did monthly as a commercial banker. It’s an unpleasant experience. Most people I know feel the same way. Way too much of a hassle. So then, has air travel gone in the right direction? No. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t make it worth the while. So now it’s something you do only when you have to. Sad. Like a bus, only you probably won’t get there on time.

Gozo Rabat
Gozo Rabat
4 months ago

Hub-and-Spoke “Just in Time” passenger-airline planning is an excellent example of how hard we Americans work to put profits ahead of all other benefits or concerns. [I guess I could ramble on, and on and on, here, but I’ll demure. Anyone who cares to, will do the “math” for themselves.] It ought to be a no-brainer, that while money can buy most-anything, in and of itself, it holds little intrinsic value. In fact, prioitizing money instead of Life is sort of like flying on an airplane in the 21st century: you can do it, sure, but unless you need to, why?

Last edited 4 months ago by Gozo Rabat
SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
4 months ago

I very much enjoyed the “backstory” from your perspective. Air travel is mostly a miserable experience now, but once I’m in the air I like to think about the Wright Brothers and that first flight and what they might have thought about even being able to experience what we do when we travel by air today. It’s been a lot better before this time period but it’s a benefit when it’s working right.

UofODuck
UofODuck
4 months ago

Hub and spoke air travel has also become another example of “just in time” inventory. In the “good old days” of air travel (there actually were some), if a plane was not airworthy, it was often possible to deplane and board a nearby replacement. With today’s emphasis on keeping planes in the air for as long as possible, you are likely not going anywhere until your plane appears out the window of your airport.

Airfares are certainly cheap by historical standards, but they are regularly being increased by add on fees that are both exorbitant and annoying. Similarly, if you don’t happen to fit comfortably in the ever shrinking passenger seats, a long haul flight can seem like an eternity.

Air travel has long ceased to be an enjoyable part of most journeys, and instead has been reduced to an ordeal to be endured in order to get someplace in an amount of time that can’t be achieved by alternate means.

Goodgold
Goodgold
4 months ago

Interesting, but we’ve had just about zero problems flying before the Covid mandates. Crews calling in sick, taking time off for the holidays, etc. have really messed up the airline industry. Prior to Covid, I could put up with flying (with TSA, cramped seating) but the significant delays and cancellations have ruined it for us. No thanks.

Bo Simmons
Bo Simmons
4 months ago

Good reminder about the value of Hub cities. I was a little surprised you would mention going from SAV to CLT vs. ATL. you also didn’t have ATL on your hub list – it is the largest of any of those named. Was there a reason?

Tom Kubik
Tom Kubik
4 months ago
Reply to  Bo Simmons

Nope, Just an oversight. Lots of great things around Atlanta and Delta goes anywhere you want from ATL nonstop. Good catch!

Howard Rohleder
Howard Rohleder
4 months ago

Great explanation of how air travel has changed and why. Another issue was the changes after 9/11 requiring early arrival for security checks adding even more time to the trip. Over the years, I have found I am willing to drive to ever more distant destinations rather than fly. Although I suppose I might get caught in an unexpected traffic jam, I feel more in control of my arrival time than when I fly. Now, if they would just build a bridge to Hawaii…

Nate Allen
Nate Allen
4 months ago

No bridges to Hawaii (yet!) and I don’t believe there are any ferries. However, there are a number of cruise lines that will take you back and forth.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
4 months ago

Thanks of the great article. I’ve really enjoyed your insights into the airline industry. Great advice about proximity to a major airport. Reducing the number of connecting flights was always one of my goals as I traveled throughout my career.

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