This article originally was published on Oct. 8, 2018, on Forbes.com.
OAG has released its third-annual “Megahub” studies of international and United States airport connectivity. The studies calculate the number of unique online connections that a traveler can make at a given airport on the day of the year with the most flights at that airport. This year’s results are generally unsurprising, with London’s Heathrow retaining its ranking as the most connected airport in the world, followed by Chicago O’Hare, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Toronto Pearson. Domestically, the most connected airport is O’Hare, followed by Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver.
Digging a little deeper, though, reveals some interesting insights. Why is Chicago O’Hare ranked ahead of Atlanta when Atlanta is the larger airport by almost any measure? O’Hare’s connectivity index is 479 (in the U.S. report), while Atlanta’s is 396, so the two airports are not even close.
The answer, according to John Grant, a senior analyst for OAG, is regional traffic: “The big insight is, don’t underestimate the value of all these relatively small airports in the U.S. and the contribution they make to aviation.”
Indeed, U.S. hub airports in general receive a lot more regional feed than airports elsewhere, which contributes to U.S. airports’ overall high ranking in the study. European airports, by contrast, tend to rely on local traffic or high-speed rail connections. (Rail connections are not considered because they generally cannot be ticketed with air travel.)
This bodes well for the network expansion strategy announced by United Airlines’ President Scott Kirby. The expansion focuses on adding a regional feed to the airline’s mid-continent hubs in Denver, Chicago and Houston. These regional flights were drawn down over a period of years in order to keep total capacity growth within investor expectations. However, not all capacity is equal, and regional routes create a lot of options for relatively low cost. As Grant explained, the effort needed “to create one long-haul route to create a number of regional routes that provide many more connection opportunities.”
United seems set to stay the course on its regional expansion, and early financial results are supporting its strategy. Or as Grant would say, “Thank heavens for the small airport.”