MIAMI— American Airlines maintains its largest hub at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), comfortably sprawling across over 17,000 acres and featuring five expansive passenger terminals. Approximately 174,000 passengers fly through DFW on a daily basis – a massively sized operation prone to create headaches for some travelers. American knows that connecting via its DFW hub can sometimes be miserable on the passenger side, and it’s taking steps to smoothen operations at the facility to minimize potential shortcomings.
Toward the end of September, American restructured how it will place flights across the four terminals it employs, Brett Snyder at The Cranky Flier reports. American now distributes flights primarily depending on the aircraft type. All flights assigned a gate in Terminal A will be serviced by 757’s, A321’s, or 737’s, while those assigned a gate in Terminal C will feature A319’s and MD-80’s. Terminal D will continue to support mainly internationally-bound flights, with some various domestic flights peppered in as usual, and Terminal B stays designated for regional flights sporting the “American Eagle” name.
To appropriately handle any unevenness between terminals, American also designated the low end of Terminal C (its operations Zone 3, encompassing from gates C2 to C15) as an overflow area for any aircraft type or destination.
It marks a change from previously when American scattered its various aircraft types widely across terminals, with only a small number of gates designated for particular aircraft type (primarily those handling wide-bodies). But if it works as planned, American could very well implement the concept at its other hubs.
American hopes marrying aircraft type with a specific terminal will allow it to spread employees and resources more efficiently, while simultaneously offering more predictability for customers. By concentrating its larger aircraft in Terminal A, American can staff operations there more heavily, pulling some employees from Terminal C where flights will consistently demand less resources.
The changes also ease the flow of equipment logistically, with the airline able to park idle aircraft on pads closer to where they will eventually depart. For routes commonly employing a certain aircraft type, it will make baggage transfers more speedy and predictable.
American claims sticking to a uniform structure also informs connecting passengers whether they will need to change terminals, even before stepping off their inbound flights and gazing up at display monitors. If customers know the aircraft type their flight will utilize, it provides more certainty as to how to most quickly connect in DFW, though things perhaps get a bit more dicey when a route sees different aircraft models or when customers are simply unaware of this procedure.
If the swap makes so much sense operationally, it begs the question: why didn’t American flip the switch earlier? Two factors make the timing ripe for American to implement the procedure: the soon-to-be completely integrated American and US Airways brands, and the developing progress of terminal renovations currently taking place in Dallas.
The change comes only weeks before US Airways formally fades into the sunset, likely a significant driver behind the timing here. US Airways runs a more Airbus-heavy fleet, which will begin to spill into American’s aircraft army as more planes emerge from the paint shop. According to data from its website, American currently flies very few of the larger Airbus models under its own brand name. With more of US Airways’ aircraft likely routed through DFW in the near future, American probably decided it made sense to concentrate the larger equipment into one location, minimizing delays with each gate appropriately staffed and with flight crews making quicker transfers to meet their next aircraft.
Additionally, the status of renovations underway at DFW seems to mesh nicely with American’s new procedure. First opened in the 1970’s, DFW’s original terminals (A, B, C, and E) have begun to appear somewhat dated over the years, pushing the airport to modernize its look. The airport’s Terminal Renewal and Improvement Project (TRIP) kicked off in 2010, starting in Terminals A/B and gradually progressing upward from there. With Terminal A marching toward completion and portions of Terminal C next on the slate, American’s plan seems to match passenger traffic well with each terminal’s capabilities.
However, despite the efficiencies that will likely stem from the decision, wedding terminals with aircraft type could erect some operational barriers as well, especially in the context of a re-banked DFW hub. Last March, American started concentrating arrivals and departures into “banks,” designed to reduce connection times for passengers (and a feature for which some travelers will pay a premium).
But while undoubtedly fliers prefer to spend less time in a connecting airport (accounting for much of the traffic at DFW), banking also has the effect of straining resources heavily during peak activity periods. With flights all looking for a gate at once, American’s new policy might artificially limit the number of available gates in which to slot particular inbound aircraft as they roll in if the airline intends to stick with the rule firmly (though having an overflow zone as backup may mitigate this risk somewhat, although employing it in that sense routinely would also begin to undercut the advertised predictability and efficiency benefits).
Fliers are unlikely to appreciate the move very much if they burn time idling on the tarmac waiting for a gate. Particularly once irregular operations induced by weather start to wreak havoc, this could potentially create a new source of delays, even as the move seems operationally sound otherwise.
And despite claims from the airline that the move will better the customer experience, only fliers acutely aware of the specific procedure will realize the benefit of less uncertainty, leaving the effect on most average travelers more open to question. At the very least, American will need to clearly communicate the concept to its consumer base through well-designed signage at the airport and through announcements made on-board prior to arriving at the gate.
In a ceremony on Thursday unveiling a new logo for the airport, CEO Sean Donohue emphasized DFW’s role as a global “superhub,” one with a “renewed commitment to elevating the customer experience.” American Airlines is betting its latest move will reinforce that reputation by introducing more operational efficiency.
Both Donohue and American are hoping that DFW’s patrons share the sentiment.