How Do Airlines Decide Where to Fly?

2019 was another year of tremendous growth for RDU. Total passenger traffic was more than 14.2 million for the year – an 11% increase over the previous year, setting a new all-time passenger traffic record. Over the course of the year, RDU’s airline partners launched 31 new routes, including nine to previously unserved destinations, and seven from the airport’s newest airline partner, Spirit Airlines, which began serving RDU in May.

In light of record setting growth in 2019, it might come as a surprise that RDU’s total non-stop destinations served actually declined over the course of the year. While RDU peaked with service to 65 total non-stop destinations in 2019, the airport will enter 2020 with non-stop service to 57, begging the question – why the decline? The answer relates to competition and growth, and the risks airlines are willing to take in testing potential routes in competitive markets such as Raleigh-Durham.


Aided by the growth of ultra-low cost carriers (ULCC) such as Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit, medium and large hub U.S. airports have seen their non-stop destinations swell in the years following the recession.  With newly consolidated legacy airlines focusing on expanding their “hub-and-spoke” networks, ULCC operators have found success in flying between previously unserved markets, operating two or three times a week, instead of the daily service required of most legacy airlines. These “point-to-point” routes are direct routes between non-hub airports, whereas “hub-and-spoke” networks route flights through a central hub where passengers connect to their final destination.

Not surprisingly, ULCC’s jumped on the most popular, profitable route opportunities first – minimizing risks, while providing competition to legacy airlines that connect passengers to those markets. The legacy airlines responded, creating new fare levels such as “basic economy” to compete directly with ULCC operators, and bolstering hub connections to provide consumers with more choice with regard to what days and times they can fly.

How does all of this relate to non-stop destinations? For highly competitive markets such as RDU, increased competition has resulted in ULCC carriers increasingly “testing” potential markets to determine which ones will provide longer term, sustained profits. For instance, Frontier launched 16 new routes from RDU in 2019, but pulled service from six by year’s end because they did not perform to expectations.

This tactic is not isolated to RDU. For example, in 2018, Frontier operated 31 non-stop destinations from fast-growing Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS), but only 19 a year later.  Where competition is high, airlines such as Frontier are willing to assume greater risk in launching numerous markets to identify the ones that will pay off.

RDU’s non-stop destinations swelled in 2019 due in large part to Frontier testing numerous markets over the course of the year, but decreased recently to levels still in excess of where they were just two years ago, when RDU carriers served 48 non-stop destinations.

Fortunately, when a carrier decides to drop a RDU route, it often opts to reinvest those flights into another RDU destination. For instance, Spirit Airlines responded to high levels of competition in the Boston (BOS) market by dropping its daily RDU-BOS service and immediately adding an additional daily flight to Orlando (MCO), resulting in no change to its overall RDU service.

Fewer non-stop destinations is a consequence of airlines willing to take risks in a market that stands out not only for its growth, but also for the interest it attracts from competitors. Combined with the ongoing challenges posed by the 737 MAX groundings, this has resulted in a temporary decline in non-stop destinations.

Despite the temporary decline, RDU’s passenger growth trend is expected to continue in 2020 with airlines adding more seats in the market. Bigger planes and more flights increase competition to our customers’ most popular destinations, which provides more flight options and helps lower ticket prices.