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Hub-and-Spoke and Point-to-Point Flight Networks

Updated on February 16, 2015

The intricacies of air travel often seem cryptic; for example, traveling two states over by means of zigzagged, multi-leg routes seems unreasonable and overcomplicated. But there is a method to the airlines’ madness: Point-to-point and hub-and-spoke are the two most common route network models used by the airline industry, each with enthusiastic supporters and disgruntled opponents. While you can't exactly choose the one that suits you best (that's for the airlines to decide) it is helpful to understand why both exist.

Hub and Spoke shown visually, with the central red dot representing the "hub".
Hub and Spoke shown visually, with the central red dot representing the "hub". | Source

Journey by Hub and Spoke

Imagine a bicycle wheel, which is most simply composed of spokes that extend radially outward to some peripheral point from the central hub; the premise of hub-and-spoke travel is evident in its name. The hub-and-spoke model hinges on the idea that a flight network organized about a hub – where all routes intersect – requires fewer flights to service all of the spokes – the routes to and from the hub. Mathematics proves this to be true, although efficiency for airlines does not translate to convenience for the traveler.

An uncanny resemblance -- you get the picture.
An uncanny resemblance -- you get the picture. | Source
Southwest Airlines is one of the last proud point-to-point airline.
Southwest Airlines is one of the last proud point-to-point airline. | Source

The Shortest Path

Point-to-point travel is the most obvious way of getting from place to place: direct flights. The prevailing argument for point-to-point travel is that it is often more economical in addition to greater convenience for passengers. Although few airlines still fly point-to-point routes, some of those that do report great success economically and rate high in customer satisfaction. Southwest Airlines, for one, operates more than 3600 point-to-point flights per day with consistent profits amidst an anemic industry.

Intro to Airline Economics

The hub-and-spoke model was developed to be more efficient and economically effective. While there are numerous operational fees associated with this multi-leg model, it allows for more efficient transportation of customers by enabling the use of high-capacity aircraft. Supply-and-demand governs the economics of hub-and-spoke travel: though it seems inconceivable with today’s insurmountable fares, its efficiency is reflected in ticket pricing. Nonetheless, getting to low-traffic destinations may require multiple flight transfers, complicating travel arrangements and increasing flight costs. In this case, point-to-point travel has more direct options that are cost-effective for airlines and usually cheaper for passengers.

*Not happy about the rising cost of air travel.
*Not happy about the rising cost of air travel. | Source

Routes and Ruts

While point-to-point allows for direct routes, hub and spoke allows for higher frequency of travel between low-traffic destinations. Point-to-point travel is more convenient for passengers; however, hub-and-spoke travel allows for a greater diversity of airlines and flight times. Nonetheless, the massive amount of coordination required for hub-and-spoke networks results in delays, missed connections and headaches. In the case of Southwest Airlines the direct travel model has endured due to their short routes and their large fleet of low-capacity, nimble aircraft which can easily overcome the traffic jams experienced by larger aircrafts.

Manston Airport -- this is why smaller planes can still utilize a point-to-point routing strategy.
Manston Airport -- this is why smaller planes can still utilize a point-to-point routing strategy. | Source

Which flight option do you prefer?

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