Is there a silver lining in United’s Cleveland de-hubbing?


With the news out yesterday that United is cutting more than 100 daily flights and nearly 40 non-stop destinations from Cleveland the general tone in the region is, not surprisingly, rather sad. It is hard to believe that anything good comes from this move. And certainly the loss of nearly 500 jobs in the region isn’t going to be a good thing, nor will the fewer options for passengers on non-stop flights. But might there be a silver lining in all of this? Could Cleveland residents see fares drop as a result of United’s move?

Looking at a few of the markets today where United is the sole non-stop operator it is clear that they are asking a significant premium on fares. A two-night trip to Manchester, NH during the week costs nearly $900 on the non-stop flights. Compare that to connecting service offered by the competition and the fares are in the $250 range for similar travel dates. Yes, the connecting trip is ~4 hours each way versus the 1:40ish en route on the non-stop, but it is also much less expensive.

With a connection the fares are much lower; not too surprising, really.
With a connection the fares are much lower; not too surprising, really.
Much higher fares in the non-stop market
Much higher fares in the non-stop market

Of course, passengers are free to buy that cheaper fare today without these cuts. But if they wanted to fly United even with a connection the fare remained sky-high. United is, in a sense, competing with itself so it is forced to keep the connecting fares artificially high relative to the other carriers.

High fares from United even on connecting flights where they have a non-stop option in the market.
High fares from United even on connecting flights where they have a non-stop option in the market.

Other markets are similar. Here’s Cleveland to Austin:

Pay 1/3 the price if you take a connection. Passengers will no longer have a choice, but they may be forced to save a bit.
Pay 1/3 the price if you take a connection. Passengers will no longer have a choice, but they may be forced to save a bit.

Willing to take a connection? Fares are a third the price!

Without the non-stop service in the market United will almost certainly be forced to compete on price and service, rather than just on schedule. That’s a potential small win for Cleveland residents traveling to some of these markets. Then again, those customers are going to have to be willing to fly on United even after these cuts, a loyalty which may not actually exist in real life.

Of course, United has not committed to increasing lift on the flights in and out of Cleveland which it is keeping. This means that competition for cheap seats on the connecting itineraries will potentially increase and getting the super-cheap fares may not actually happen. But there is arguably a better chance without the non-stop flights than with them.

It isn’t much to be happy about and it may be more of a pyrrhic victory than anything else. But it is something, better than nothing, I suppose.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

12 Comments

  1. I’ve noticed this as well. I visit Cleveland periodically for work, and the direct flights on United out of EWR are often $700+, even when booked well in advance. Means I end up flying Airtran to Akron. I had Cleveland colleagues who would travel to Toronto with me for a client, and the direct flights were often $1500+!!! Some of them ended up driving instead.

  2. We had the same thing in CVG when Delta was a lot bigger presence here – prices were just so expensive that it drove people to fly out of DAY or other nearby airports.

  3. While there may be legitimate business reasons for United to make these cuts, the argument that there is a meaningful silver lining for Cleveland is pretty myopic – or reads like that of an apologist for United.

    There are already plenty of 1-stop connecting service options out of CLE, whether on DL & AA or on LCCs, and as you point out they are at lower price points that UA nonstops. CLE isn’t constrained by gates or slots. Today customers have the choice of lower price and longer travel time and connecting risks, or higher price and nonstop service. They are basically losing many of the nonstop options, and not getting anything in return. Even if there is a bit more connecting lift, there is no real reason prices will drop, and while average fares will drop, that will be due to the nonstop travel being converted to connecting travel, and not necessarily connecting travel getting any cheaper.

    United’s move to dehub CLE will mean less options for travelers. Even if the alternative connecting service is cheaper, not having any choice isn’t much of a silver lining.

      1. No, I read what you wrote. You noted the existing cheaper connecting fares and theorize that when withdrawing nonstop service United will have to compete on price and service.

        I don’t see that happening. They’ll match price and they won’t give CLE any special service. There’s no silver lining unless new competition moves in – and there wasn’t anything restricting new competition before.

        And how long will it be until UA either reduces mainline flying with less flow, or shifts some of it to RJs.

        1. I guess we’ll have to disagree on the idea that UA will continue to charge $800+ for a connecting itinerary when everyone else is only charging $250. I simply do not see that happening as you are suggesting it will.

          1. I think that’s a pretty limited silver lining, though. I doubt UA will undercut its competitors on connecting fares, and unless you are a UA elite, there is little reason to fly UA vs. DL on a connecting route. DL offers a better hub (DTW) going west, much better coverage of the southeast, and better service (although fewer Y+ seats and a worse frequent flyer program, even if that particular gap is narrowing a bit).

          2. I don’t think UA will charge $800 on connecting itineraries – they’ll charge the same as DL or AA will charge on connecting itineraries.

            I just don’t see that as a silver lining. Today people have the choice of high fare and nonstop service, or cheaper fare and connecting service. In the future in many markets they’ll only have the connecting choice.

            I suppose for a narrow set of people, who want to fly UA over other airlines but who don’t want to pay a premium to fly UA, you call that the silver lining. But you generally advocate making the best flight and hotel choice, so it’s not much of a silver lining for anyone to lose choices.

  4. I agree that it is limited, Phudnik. I don’t think it makes up for the cuts at all. But I’m trying to find the little bits where I can. It is the optimist in me.

    1. The Clevelander in me believes that UA’s market share on connecting flights from CLE will plummet. People in Cleveland are world-class grudge-holders.

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