American, United Ramp Up Flying at O'Hare

After two years of cutbacks, the number of departures at O'Hare is returning to 2008 levels.
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CHICAGO (

TheStreet

) -- After two years of shrinking at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, hub carriers

American

(AMR)

and

United

(UAUA)

are both growing again, adding dozens of new flights there even as other carriers continue to pull back their international departures.

Increased dominance at key airports such as O'Hare, the world's second-busiest airport, is one more indication that the long-struggling U.S. airline industry managed to take advantage of the recession to strengthen itself.

The O'Hare increases will be closely watched because the airport, a hub for two of the three biggest airlines, has always been a chokepoint that, when weather is bad, can cause air traffic delays across the country. Capacity reductions across the industry have resulted in reduced delays at O'Hare, which has also benefited from a

new runway that opened in October 2008.

According to figures compiled by OAG Aviation for

TheStreet

, the number of domestic flights at O'Hare this July will be 34,663, only 332 fewer than in July 2008.

United reduced capacity from 17,215 flights in July 2008 to 16,013 in July 2009. But in July 2010, it will have 17,595 flights, or 2% more than it had 2008. American cut back from 14,355 in July 2008 to 11,995 in July 2009. This July, it will operate 13,579 flights, or 5% fewer than two years earlier. Meanwhile, other domestic carriers at O'Hare continue to operate about 10% of the flights -- 3,489 of them this July, or 64 more than in July 2008. But United will have 51% of the total, up from 49% two years earlier, while American's share declined about 2% to 39%.

"American cut more in 2008 and added back more in 2010, but over the two years, American lost route coverage and departure share in comparison to United," said OAG consultant Sandy Rederer. This July, United will serve 121 domestic routes from O'Hare, while American will serve 100.

Meanwhile, the number of international departures at O'Hare in July fell from 1,634 in 2008 to 1,500 in July 2009, a decline of 8%. This July, the total will show a slight gain to 1,538 international departures.

Significantly, however, the two hub carriers have increased their share of international departures, according to OAG figures. In July 2008, American and United combined for 858 international departures, or 53% of the total. In July 2009 they shrank to 806 international departures, or 54%. But this year, they will combine to offer 868 international departures or 56% of the total. Other carriers have been gradually shrinking at O'Hare, cutting back from 775 international departures in July 2008 to 670 in July 2010.

Rederer noted that American was the frequency leader in July 2008 and 2009, but United caught up in 2010. Currently, each serves 11 international destinations. However, "the overlap between these two giants increased and in 2010 each will fly just two routes not flown by the other," he said. American's unique cities are Dublin, Manchester and Delhi, while United's are Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Munich. The third-largest international carrier at O'Hare is

Lufthansa

, a United partner in the Star Alliance, which flies four times a day to Germany, including twice a day to Frankfurt.

Perhaps the most critical new flight will be added April 26, when American begins flying Chicago-Beijing.

The Skyteam alliance, Rederer noted, is only a minor player at O'Hare. But of course,

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

operates Midwest hubs in both Detroit and Minneapolis.

Overall, the number of domestic flights at O'Hare reached 375,800 in 2007, then gradually fell back to 314,700 in 2009, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Consequently, the percentage of on-time domestic departures rose from 66% in 2007 to 78% in 2009.

The increase in O'Hare flying is "a positive for the industry and a sign that could be a bellwether for the country as an early sign that traffic is coming around," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.

However, Mitchell warned that delays could also return if congestion returns to the nation's busiest airports. In particular, he noted that the U.S. Transportation Department's new policy of fining carriers for tarmac delays that last longer than three hours could lead to more cancellations, especially as the number of flights grows and runways become more crowded. The policy takes effect April 29.

"The DOT didn't give the airlines much time to implement," Mitchell said. "To the extent that airports like O'Hare are getting back to higher traffic levels, their problems could be exacerbated by the policy."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.