Invasion of the market share snatchers

November 21, 2022

OH, NO! Avelo Air and Breeze Airways are invading my home airport, Raleigh/Durham (RDU), with metaphoric teeth bared to gobble up market share from the Big Boys!  HELP!

Hold on a sec—how can that be?  Delta dominates RDU with flights to everywhere.  Niche airlines would be nuts to start service here, right?  Wouldn’t they lose their shirts?  

What happened to RDU being a “focus city” for Delta?  Meaning Delta would offer so many flights to so many places from RDU that the company sucked all the oxygen from the room, er, the Raleigh/Durham Airport.

Covid happened, that’s what. 

With thousands of employees laid off or offered early retirements during the pandemic, Delta, like United and American, can’t get enough planes and crews in the air to meet the sudden surge in people flying again.  Delta was forced to cut back on its expansion plans from RDU and, worse, to withdraw from markets and reduce frequencies to markets it already served.  With demand skyrocketing, the niche players are coming to town.

Avelo and Breeze have done their homework.  The two carriers are hoping to hive off some share by offering nonstops to destinations the other guys don’t serve anymore, thus chipping away at connecting traffic at the big hubs.

Back in July 2018, Delta made a big splash when it designated RDU a “focus city,” which means more nonstops and easier coast-to-coast access.  A focus city is characterized by most passengers beginning or ending their trips there, contrasted with a hub that has flights to and from many more cities with the majority of the passengers connecting to other cities.

I was there when Delta Senior VP of Network Planning Joe Esposito spoke in 2018 at a breakfast meeting of Raleigh’s Regional Transportation Alliance.  He bragged, “We’ve been making major investments in the community over the last 10 years and have geared up to handle the big business market [in the Research Triangle]. … We now serve all the major business markets.”  At the time, Delta was RDU’s busiest airline with about 80 departures per day carrying one-third of all passengers to 27 destinations, including Paris CDG.

Delta then kicked off more service with 3 daily nonstops to ORD (competing with AA and UA nonstop flights from RDU), adding Chicago to 17 new nonstop destinations since 2010, including Nashville, Austin, and Seattle (the latter competing with daily Alaska Air service to Sea-Tac). There was even 2019 speculation that RDU would eventually be upgraded to hub status.

Then came Covid.  I took photos like the ones in this May 2020 post at RDU when no one was flying.

By March of 2021 Delta had cut such focus cities as Nashville and San Jose, leaving only RDU and AUS.  Raleigh and Austin aren’t dominated by other carriers, so the traffic of early 2021 sustained Delta’s RDU service.  Delta even added nonstops to JAX and Las Vegas.

By October of this year, however, Delta’s chronic aircraft and crew shortages caused the airline to scale back drastically.  No more Chicago, Philly, Hartford, Indy, or Nashville nonstop flights.  Delta stopped flying nonstop from RDU to these markets:

Which resulted in Delta’s market share at RDU shrinking considerably in the year from Sep 2021 to Aug 2022. Including Republic, small carriers by then garnered more than 32% of the market:

Thus the RDU void that Avelo and Breeze now see as an opportunity.

Breeze Airways is David Neeleman’s latest start-up (he is famous for launching Jet Blue).  Its cabins are called Nice (the usual uncomfortable domestic coach), Nicer (akin to Delta’s Comfort+, it’s a coach seat with a bit more legroom), and Nicest (like every other airline’s first class, but with little on-board service). Breeze flies A220-300 (the only ones with first class), Embraer E190, and E195 aircraft. 

Neeleman means to pick off some market share by flying nonstop to places Delta and other RDU airlines are neglecting.  Breeze’s new RDU flights beginning in 2023 are:

Hartford – begins Feb 16; two weekly flights (Thursday and Sunday).

New Orleans – begins Feb 16; four weekly flights (Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday).

Providence – begins Feb 17; two weekly flights (Monday and Friday)

Meanwhile, Avelo already flies from RDU to New Haven and will add Raleigh-Durham as a base with 6 new Florida routes (and 50 new RDU employees):

Orlando International Airport (MCO) – begins Feb 2

Tampa International Airport (TPA) – begins Feb 3

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) – begins Feb 16

Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) near Fort Myers – begins Feb 16

Sarasota Bradenton International Airport – begins Feb 17

Avelo was founded by former Allegiant Air executive Andrew Levy.  It uses all-coach 737-800 airplanes, emulating Southwest.  Most seats are a tight 29” pitch, with some near the front at 35” (no first class).  On-board service is minimal.  Think Spirit or Frontier.

Breeze and Avelo are offering discounted start-up fares from RDU.  I plan to book both and write about the experiences once the dust settles early next year. 

Frankly, I don’t expect much in the way of seat comfort or onboard service, but I have to face that my flying choices have radically changed.  Delta, American, and United have diluted their loyalty programs so completely that not much is left to attract me if Breeze, Avelo, and their ilk are offering nonstop flights to places I’d otherwise have to connect to, along with competitive or cheaper fares. 

No matter how much I despise the austere service and seat discomfort of carriers like Breeze and Avelo (and I do hate it), I wouldn’t be surprised if this sudden invasion of the market share snatchers isn’t successful in eroding Delta’s margins at RDU.

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