Delta Air Lines said on Tuesday that it will drop 25 percent of its departures from Memphis, Tenn., though it insisted that the airport will remain one of its hubs.
Delta spokeswoman Kristin Baur said demand wasn't high enough to keep the flights. The cuts are part of a 4 percent reduction in Delta's planned worldwide flying this year. Like other airlines, Delta has been dealing with sharply higher fuel prices.
The cuts will begin in the fall and are focused on smaller planes _ 50-seat jets and 34-seat turboprops _ that fly to small cities. Memphis is expected to keep its Delta flights to the 50 biggest U.S. cities and a daily flight to Amsterdam. Also, Delta said it will put larger planes on some routes, so the number of available seats will fall less than the number of destinations.
Airlines use hubs to fill flights that wouldn't have enough demand from the hub city alone with passengers from connecting flights. Cities covet their status as hubs because it means more flight options for travelers who live there. Delta carries 87 percent of travelers who pass through Memphis International Airport.
Two things worked against Memphis keeping more Delta flights: It is just 330 miles away from Delta's main hub in Atlanta. And 80 percent of the airline's passengers pass through on connecting flights, versus 20 percent that originate in Memphis, said Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. So flights that attracted little local traffic were easy for Delta to cut, he said.
Memphis became a hub for Northwest Airlines in 1985, and it had as many as 300 passenger flights a day in 2000. Delta Air Lines Inc. bought Northwest in 2008 and said it wouldn't close any hubs, though it also reduced flying at its Cincinnati hub.
Memphis has 211 flights per day now. That will fall to 150 to 170 after the cuts are made.
Cox expects the airport will draw some 750,000 fewer passengers a year, down from more than 8 million now. With each passenger spending an average of $8 on newspapers, coffee, and the like, that could slice $6 million a year from spending at airport shops, in addition to lost landing fees from the airline.
However, Cox said the financial impact should be minimal. Memphis-based FedEx Corp. has its largest overnight sorting facility at the airport. Cargo flights were almost 37 percent of its operations in the year that ended on June 30, versus 56 percent for passenger airlines. Airlines pay landing fees by weight. Fees won't fall dramatically for Delta because the cuts are focused on smaller planes, Cox said.
Delta's Baur said costs in Memphis are actually lower than at many other airports. Unlike many other airports, Memphis doesn't levy a $4.50 passenger facility charge that gets passed along to passengers.
Some Memphis flying that Delta has already cut includes flights to Montgomery, Ala., Monroe, La., Amarillo, Texas, and Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Meanwhile, it is adding some smaller cities, including Appleton, Wis., Baur said.