Ever thought how airlines plan routes?
Updated: Jun 6, 2019
Airlines around the world are constantly adding new routes to their network to appeal to passengers like us, who want the best connectivity and convenience to get from point A to point B. It may seem so simple to us that airlines add new routes, but is it? In reality it is quite a lengthy and hard process. So what do they need to do in order to add a direct new holiday destination?
The first and most important factor when planning a route is to analyze the demand for that route. No airline would want a route which few passengers need unless they want to attract losses, decrease revenue and go crashing down! Airlines look at historical passenger data to see where all the passengers have traveled and they also use AMITs (Aviation Market Intelligence Tools) to see the specific level of demand. They also look at how the demand has been for the route with a stopover (if launching a direct service) and if the flight is really needed. When the airline establishes that a particular route is in demand, it's still not that simple to just go ahead and start the services for that new route. So let's take a look what other factors are considered before launching a new route!
Choice of aircraft
If there is a good level of demand for the route, the next thing airlines must consider when planning is the aircraft they want to deploy on their routes. The key for airlines in picking their aircraft is to pick a plane that will meet the range requirements but can have the right capacity to meet the demand. For example, if an airline wants to launch a BOM-MRU route, they would deploy an aircraft like a Boeing 737 that can travel 6 hours and that can fill up seats instead of deploying an ultra-long-range aircraft like the Airbus A380 that is only half filled. This way the airline can make more profit.
Airlines have at least one or more hubs from where their flights arrive or depart. This is so the airline can mange their flights, open lounges, hire more staff, etc. Here's a question for you: Have you ever seen a number of flights departing to the same region or continent at almost the same time on a flight tracker or departure board? If you have, do you know why?
Airlines have specific "time banks" for their flights. In these time banks, flights to specific regions arrive and depart in rapid succession within 1-2 hours. For example, Emirates' night flights to the US depart anywhere between 02:00 and 03:00 Dubai time, so that they can reach the US at 09:00 - 10:00 US time which is when most US domestic flights depart. This strategy not only benefits the convenience of the hub/destination, but it also reduces the layover time.
Of course, this segment is not really necessary for airlines launching a service which is the first ever for connecting two cities. But if an airline wants to launch a new route that another airline already launched, then they will need to proceed with caution! For opening an already existing route by another airline, the airline launching the route will need to take into consideration the following:
1. The airlines operating that existing route
2. The pricing of that route
3. The comfort level that other airlines are giving
By taking these three things into consideration, the airline will dominate the route, forcing other airlines to discontinue the route, because the airline will have lower prices than others and still have a comfort level that knocks everyone else out. Nice having you on board, but the route's not yours now!
Takeoff and landing rights
Just like this post before it is published, routes by airlines need approval. The governments of the airline's home country and the destination country must decide whether the airline should be given takeoff/landing rights and how many slots to give. This can take time depending on how busy the airport is. If the airline is flying to a small, quiet airport then the route should be approved pretty quickly, compared to an airline flying to a busy international airport where it could take a long time for approval and even not be approved.
This may be the last point here but it's not the least important one! (well, all of the points here are important...) There are certain operational factors that come into play when deciding a route. First, there is gate availability. When airlines fly to a destination, they will have to park at a gate to deplane, whether it is a remote stand or a jet bridge gate. For this, airlines have to find slots before launching the route so that they can park at a gate.
The next two are the turnover time/costs and the clash with the hub's time bank. After the arrival of a flight from it's origin airport, the flight will need time to deplane it's passengers, unload the baggage, clean the plane, have the flight crew check the plane, and board the new passengers plus load the bags for the outbound flight. This process is called a turnover and it can be as fast as 30 minutes (depends on the plane flown). But sometimes airlines tend to keep their plane on the ground for a longer period of time so that the arrival is in sync with it's time bank. For example, Emirates leaves it's 777-200LR in Fort Lauderdale for nearly 12 hours to sync the arrival in it's time bank for US-inbound flights!
The last factor is staff and crews for the airline. At any destination airport, the airline needs to have staff handling the flight, as well as staff for check-in, lounges and boarding. If the airline does not have enough staff for these operations, then it would be very tricky handling the route.
If any airline wants to plan a new route, this is how they do it. Airlines have to go through these factors and they have to have every single one in place for the route to thrive. Airlines can take months, if not a year to launch routes because they would be awaiting approval to do so. Once it is launched, that means extra convenience, comfort and less layover time for you and me!