Delta Air Lines ( DALRQ) moved Tuesday to expand the reach of its operations at its New York's Kennedy International Airport, saying it will add 46 new flights to 17 domestic destinations in an effort to feed its growing international route system.

Also, for the first time, Delta referred to its Kennedy operation as a hub, equating it with Atlanta, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City.

"We're building a hub here," Chief Operating Officer Jim Whitehurst told reporters on a conference call. "That's one of the reasons we're doing this, to make sure we have the short-haul feed we need into JFK."

The new flights will make Delta the largest operator at Kennedy, with 139 flights to 67 destinations on peak days. The airline is also the leader in seat capacity at New York's LaGuardia Airport, with 132 departures to 44 destinations on peak days.

Most of the new and expanded Kennedy destinations are smaller cities that can be served with 37-seat Dash 8 turboprops operated by Mesa Air Group ( MESA) and 50-seat regional jets operated by Comair. The cities include Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y.; Cleveland; Detroit; Norfolk and Richmond, Va.; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Hartford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Washington and Montreal.

With the new flights, Delta will serve 18 destinations within 425 miles from Kennedy, up from eight today. A new flight to San Diego and an additional flight to Las Vegas will also be added, giving Delta five transcontinental destinations from Kennedy. They will feed Delta flights from Kennedy to 31 international destinations. Of those, seven will be added this spring and summer, including new flights to Kiev, Ukraine, and Sao Paulo.

The JFK expansion is a key component of Delta's effort to emerge from bankruptcy in 2007 as a profitable carrier with a vastly increased emphasis on international flying.

Delta, which has lost $12.6 billion since January 2001, filed for bankruptcy court protection in September. Among its problems is revenue per seat mile of 9.33 cents, the lowest of any major carrier. About a third of Delta's revenue disadvantage, relative to its competitors, is explained by "our relatively small mix of international flying," Whitehurst said. That situation is rapidly being addressed, he said.

The airline is better positioned than its competitors to expand internationally because it has 29 widebody aircraft flying domestic routes, Whitehurst noted. While only a handful of new widebody planes are being delivered to U.S. carriers over the next three years, "we have plenty of metal to grow (international) from all of our hubs," he said. "We have several more years of growth we can do without (new airplanes)."

Delta becomes the third carrier to envision a Kennedy a hub, joining JetBlue Airways ( JBLU) and AMR ( AMR) unit American Airlines.

The additional flights could lead to further congestion in the crowded Kennedy airspace, Whitehurst acknowledged, but he added that most arrivals are being scheduled to take place before Delta's afternoon international departures.

"We're being very surgical with arrivals," he said. "We're doing everything we can to minimize the impact during peak."

JetBlue spokesman Bryan Baldwin said all carriers face congestion at Kennedy, but the impact can be reduced by careful scheduling. With its April schedule, JetBlue will operate 133 daily departures from Kennedy to 32 cities. Only four of those -- Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Richmond -- will also be served by Delta. Baldwin said JetBlue anticipates that passengers will prefer its A320 service and, to Richmond, 100-seat regional jet service, over Delta's smaller planes, especially given entertainment options including TV and radio.

American, meanwhile, is also growing at Kennedy and expects to operate about 100 daily departures this summer and to one day call its operation there a hub. From Kennedy, American serves 40 destinations including Tokyo, four cities in Europe and locations in South America.

Whitehurst said Delta's hub shouldn't be compared to the hub that Pan American World Airways built at Kennedy before failing in 1991. Pan Am's domestic presence was limited, he said, and served mostly to provide feed to Kennedy flights. By contrast, Delta will feed traffic to Kennedy from cities where it has a strong market presence. Additionally, in cities such as Richmond and Norfolk, Delta will be able to add northbound service to its strong southbound and westbound service.

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