After Dropping Chicago – Beijing, American Airlines Considers Ending All Chicago – Asia Flying

American Airlines announced last month that they’re ending their Chicago – Beijing flight in October. The fares on this flight are so low it’s hurting the performance of domestic connecting flights to Chicago as well.


American Boeing 787-8 in Chicago

Often when airlines look at a route they don’t really know how profitable it is. It may appear to lose money, but if it’s the linchpin for a profitable corporate contract it makes a lot of money for the airline — because revenue they’re attributing to other flights really should belong to that linchpin flight. Drop the linchpin, lose the contracts.

Similarly, a British Airways executive once told me that Club Europe (intra-Europe business class) is a money loser for them, but they need to offer a business class service or else they’ll lose lucrative business class connecting passengers. Right then I suspected the airline was attributing too much of that business class revenue to the long haul flight, and not enough to the short haul connection that was a requirement to earn the total fare.

Chicago – Beijing, though, sounds like a clear enough loser — costing the airline tens of millions of dollars a year. American’s CEO says the airline will never lose money again so they cannot abide money losing flights without a path to profitability.

American’s Vice President – Planning Vasu Raja told employees in Chicago last week at a question and answer session that Chicago flights to Asia are mostly connecting traffic, that they rely on connections from cities with low fares and often their own non-stop flights to the same destinations, and that higher fuel costs make it even harder to sustain flights than before.

It turns out, according to Raja, that American is “challenged in Chicago – Tokyo and Chicago to Shanghai in much the same way” as Chicago – Beijing. He said he’d “love to tell [American’s employees] that Chicago – Beijing was the worst of our Chicago – Asia markets but it’s not the only one.”


American Airlines Chicago O’Hare

While “there’s nothing imminent about those markets” whether other Chicago – Asia flights continue is “something that we look at.”

He re-assured that “should we do anything with any of the other Chicago to Asia markets that has nothing to do with our commitment to Chicago.”

However he says it’s hard to see how they’ll make any money flying Chicago – Asia at all.

Chicago – Asia is indeed challenged. It’s something that we’re looking at. We want to make sure all of our flights are on a path to profitability. In all candor it’s hard to see how they are but we’ll keep looking at it.

Here’s Vasa Raja’s full discussion of American Airlines flights to Asia, why they dropped Chicago – Beijing, and where Chicago – Asia flying fits in going forward.

Historically we were at what I’d call phase one of Asia expansion. Going back 10 or 20 years we were a small carrier to Asia. We didn’t have a lot of the network or even the regulatory rights our competitors had to go and serve Asia.

So for the last 20 years we just bet on everything. Any time we could add Tokyo, China, Seoul, you name it we would fly it. And we flew it for the most part at a loss. We’ve made no secret of the fact that we’ve lost money on Asia since we’ve been in it.

Some of our routes are profitable and have increased their profitability, on balance it’s been unprofitable for us. Over the last 10 or 20 years it hasn’t been as big of an issue because the difference between the least profitable flight and the most profitable flight in the international system wasn’t that big. That’s changed very meaningfully right now. The difference between Chicago to Beijing and Chicago to London isn’t 15 margin points it’s 60 margin points because Chicago to London is doing so well, the other one is doing so not well.

A lot of that growth in Asia was to go and establish a foothold there not just with out network but to build partnerships which we’ve done, not just with JAL or our growing partnership with Qantas but even with China Southern in China which has been so so crucial for us to be relevant to the Chinese customer and even to Chinese regulators.

So now we have it. We have partnerships in place. We have the kind of regulatory rights that our competitors have had. We have a network that we can lay legitimate claim to be able to connect all the major cities in the U.S. to Asia.

Now we’re in phase two to Asia which is we need to get a lot more focused because we can’t run any part of our system with the kind of losses we’ve sustained. The only way we can run around and say I never envision a time where we can go and lose money is if we don’t do things that lose money. Therefore we need to get a lot more focused about Asia.

..Chicago to Asia is a uniquely challenging part of our route structure. The delta between Chicago to Asia and Chicago to Europe is quite massive and growing all the time. As we look at Europe we see a time where we want to fly our four Heathrow trips on 787-9s with 290 seats not 787-8s with 220 seats. We want to go and upguage it. BA is bringing the A380 to Chicago Heathrow. That’s not a coincidence. We want to fly Barcelona, Venice, extend seasons and do things like that. We want to fly to Hawaii with widebodies.

..Asia has not been nearly as profitable. In the case of Beijing, Chicago is impaired versus our other hubs because in LA you have a gigantic non-stop market of people who want to go from LA to China and since LA is restricted and China is restricted we can tend to do really well there. Dallas though it’s a much much smaller non-stop market to Asia is the most efficient connecting point in the world to get people from Asia to Latin America. And indeed Dallas – Beijing and Dallas – Shanghai even Dallas – Tokyo benefits because we connect a ton of people in the Mexico and South America and indeed it’s the best connecting proposition that exists in the world.

In Chicago we really depend on connections like Boston or St. Louis. We it’s different than it was at one point in time. Boston has non-stop service to virtually every major city in Asia today and indeed the fares there are extremely low.

..The non-stop walkup fares.. Boston or St. Louis to Beijing you may be paying between $200 and $500. When you walk up to the counter and fly Boston or St. Louis to Honolulu you may pay twice that. When you walk up to the counter and buy one of those cities to London you will pay seven times that.

What that means is that when we go fly Chicago to Beijing it’s not just that we lose money on Chicago to Beijing, it’s not just that we can go do something else with the airplane that can make money, when we have a route like that that is so unprofitable it degrades the profitability of Chicago to St. Louis and Chicago to Boston as well because any time we sell a customer St. Louis to Beijing we are selling at a really really cheap fare. You all see the flights St. Louis to Chicago is full pretty much all the year round. Boston to Chicago is full pretty much all the year round. If we’re sending someone to China that’s someone we’re not sending to Europe, that makes it harder to go and develop annual services to Europe, it incentivizes you to fly smaller jets so you get those fares off of your planes.

And that’s a really destructive thing to go and do to your hub. Chicago to Beijing was a uniquely negative market. For full clarity here when I say uniquely negative it wasn’t like it was 10% negative and we’re a bunch of accountants trying to chase everything nickel here. Chicago – Beijing would need a $50 million annual improvement to be a passable international market. It would need an $80 million annual improvement to be anything even remotely close to what Chicago – Heathrow or Chicago – Barcelona are.

That was at $1.90 fuel not at $2.20 fuel. And I’d love to tell you that Chicago – Beijing was the worst of our Chicago – Asia markets but it’s not the only one. We are challenged in Chicago – Tokyo and Chicago to Shanghai in much the same way. Unlike Dallas you can’t draw on Latin America flow.. unlike Los Angeles there isn’t the non-stop business market.

Now there’s nothing imminent about those markets but it’s something that we look at. And when we look at that, let me go all the way with this too, when we go and cancel a market like Chicago to Beijing or when we go and should we do anything with any of the other Chicago to Asia markets that has nothing to do with our commitment to Chicago. In fact it’s because we take unprofitable markets out that we are committed to Chicago. When we do that those jets can go get repurposed and even though that may be not flying a really attractive trip like Beijing and it’s flying a trip like Cancun that is a gigantic profit and loss difference to Chicago. The more of that we do the more Chicago is upgauging, the more Chicago is growing. As strange as it may sound we need to take out unprofitable flights to make the profitable ones more profitable.

That’s why Chicago – Beijing is out. Chicago – Asia is indeed challenged. It’s something that we’re looking at. We want to make sure all of our flights are on a path to profitability. In all candor it’s hard to see how they are but we’ll keep looking at it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. UA execs must already be pre-ordering champagne – when the same-hub rival wants to hand over all Asia flying on a silver platter like that.

    It’s also a rather lopsided picture he’s painting cuz London’s value proposition is so unique globally that one can practically point to LHR as a justification of weak performance of any other long-haul route too.

    I’m guessing what he wants is 2-fold : move ORD-PVG to another hub (I can’t tell which one though cuz i don’t have much faith in betting on AA JFK-PVG happening …. more likely than not, if you read too much into his tea teaves, I’d say he’d up DFW-PVG to double daily), and handing NRT over to JAL.

  2. Here is the key to AA strategy: “because in LA you have a gigantic non-stop market of people who want to go from LA to China and since LA is restricted and China is restricted we can tend to do really well there.”
    Basically, once you restrict competition, AA would raise fares and make some money. This is a brilliant admission that today’s AA is non-competitive on open market.

  3. Maybe this is the result of collusion at the airline executive hoedown last month (Conquistadores del Cielo). AA will leave Chicago and soon UA will turn over their flights from LAX to Tokyo and Shanghai to AA.

  4. This guy can’t seem to get to a point to save his life. And his basic facts are wrong. “The non-stop walkup fares.. Boston or St. Louis to Beijing you may be paying between $200 and $500. When you walk up to the counter and fly Boston or St. Louis to Honolulu you may pay twice that. When you walk up to the counter and buy one of those cities to London you will pay seven times that.” Departures in the next 2-3 weeks are all around $1300 R/T for STL or BOS to PEK. To Honolulu is quite a bit less, not more – under $1000 R/T, many days just $700. And London some days is more than Beijing, some days less, but definitely not 7x the London fare. Maybe he has a very particular definition of a “walk-up” fare – but nobody walks up to the airline counter these days and buys a ticket (and the fares I quoted are for departures as soon as today).

  5. AA is dropping flights from ORD in order to help UA, just like they are dropping flights from JFK to help Delta.

  6. I have been an EXP with AA for over 10 years and still am. I am based out of Chicago. I try to avoid any long haul on AA metal from ORD to PEK, PVG, or NRT. Why? It comes down to the service for 12 to 15 hours and knowing that I personally or had my company pay $5k to $6k for a business class ticket. I will personally fly ORD LAX HKG, PVG, NRT on AA Metal because the AA Flight Attendants out of LAX are much nicer, younger, and serve you as if they care about you. Dallas Flight attendants are hit or miss. Chicago is by far the worst (about 70% bad experience) when it comes to passenger service on a long haul premium market. Midwest grandmas and stubborn flight chief pursers, flight attendants, cold food, yelling back at the premium customer for simple requests, etc.

    I normally will jump at any JAL ORD to NRT business class ticket vs AA ORD to NRT. JAL (while their FAs are aging extensively – are much nicer even if they can’t understand you).

  7. And yet there’s almost zero business saver award availability on any of the Chicago-Asia flights. Talk about BS.

  8. @Alex_77W: I think he meant that LAX-PVG (and other routes to Asia, e.g. LAX-NRT and LAX-PEK) is a bigger nonstop O&D market, not that there’s less competition. In fact there’s much more competition – LAX-PVG is served by four airlines with five daily flights, including all three of the U.S. majors.

  9. snagged MCI-ORD-PVG over thanksgiving week earlier this year for $600. hoping the upgrade clears – seats are wide open including all biz seats

  10. Interesting – it sounds like UA is eating AA’s lunch at ORD, at least on the Asia routes. Not a shocker as UA has well integrated service, good partnerships and a comprehensive route map.

    Hard to give up on the 2nd city, but maybe AA has simply decided to cut its losses and redeploy on routes where it has a better shot at beating the competition.

  11. @ Alan L. Sorry but facts speak for themselves. If it seems like ageism, then maybe AA Chicago should focus on business continuity or a 9-box matrix. Don’t think you can say someone is sexist when the FA industry is 80% women…

  12. To several. Just to be clear, if the big three airline executives got together and divided up the markets, to make more money, that would be price collusion, and highly illegal. One recording could put everyone involved in jail. I am sure that their respective legal counsels would have told them that, in the outside event the airline executives had never taken a business law course.

    On AA. They s*ck. One of the barriers to entry of the big three is their worldwide global footprint. Everyday, they break that down, making airfares more and more a commodity. Without barriers to entry, AA becomes a price taker rather than a price maker. So what can they do, if a low cost airline comes to market. Nothing, but continually shrink and/or lose money. I do not think they have thought this out exactly.

  13. sometimes comments on other forums are such hilarious sour grapes …. like both AA/JL and UA/NH JVs are on JFK/EWR-HND/NRT, but since DL couldn’t find any friends in Japan, and didn’t apply for JFK-HND authority when they had the chance, now the apologist “i don’t even want it even if you gave me” soundbites are like :

    “Delta never made a dime in JFK-TYO. And, judging by the capacity offered by JAL and ANA, they don’t make much either. “Prestige” don’t equal “Profits” in the airline business.”

    and

    “Overall capacity numbers in the NYC-TYO market should make it pretty clear, it just isn’t that great. It is an Open Skies market, Anyone can fly as much capacity as they want (so long as they have slots). I agree that, on paper, you’d think it would be one of the world’s strongest international markets. But it is clearly not.”

    Let’s just recap that – it’s *NOT* “prestige” when NW and now DL flew it continuously since June 2009 till Oct 2016 (and other iterations of that service prior to that with gaps in between), but when

    (1) competitors combined fly roughly 300 premium (F/J) daily seats each way, with another ~100-120 or so premium econ seats, being only slightly behind the most premium heavy NYC-HKG on a nonstop basis,
    (2) a route so valuable JAL/AA’s JV has opted for moving for HNL-HND slot to over all the fortress mid-continent hubs like DFW where many thought was the obvious solution,
    (3) we’re around the peak economic cycle against manageable oil futures,
    (4) premium heavy configs were chosen so there’s no evidence of capacity dumping,
    (5) all 5 daily flights are within JV scope to guard against individual favoritism,

    Then yea, it’s “PRESTIGE” and “don’t make much earlier” since Delta doesn’t know how to. You gotta give them credit when being on every sides of the coin —

    – ask why SEA-TPAC struggles ? It’s “HU seat dumping, people driving to YVR, and not enough connections to feed it”

    – ask why not go for O&D at LAX or JFK ? It’s “too much entrenched competition”

    – ask why not move to fortress hub with plenty of connections and zero competition on most routes like MSP or DTW ? It’s “filling the flight largely with low yield connections that’s not worth doing” and “nearby strong hubs like ORD”

    – and finally, ask why not a fortress hub like ATL that’s literally in a its own league, one that gives you monopoly on the routes, and dominant capture of US point-of-sale contracts, then it’s “distance too long” and “overflying the large O&D cities like NY LA SF”.

    They’re busy using their profit levels to justify all their decisions, then turn around and explain away why none of their hubs can handle the job at all.

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