Flashback Friday: Legacy airlines and failed Florida focus cities

N601US_B747-151_Northwest_Orient_JFK_09JUL70_(6505939873) (1)Before Southwest Airlines came to dominate domestic traffic from many Florida airports  and long before JetBlue and Spirit even existed, several legacy carriers attempted to set up focus cities (mini Hubs) in the state. Following airline deregulation in 1978, carriers flocked to Florida to fight the traditionally entrenched powers Eastern, Delta and National Airlines in the state. Immediately following deregulation TWA added several new routes from Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando to points in the Midwest and Northeast. Most of these flights flopped and were discontinued after a year or two, but the intent was clear- Florida was going to be a battleground for legacy airlines who traditionally had little market share in the state.

Today we will look at three different focus cities in three different decades. Each of these experiments eventually failed.

  • 1980’s Northwest Orient – Tampa Int’l
  • 1990’s United –  Orlando Int’l
  • 2000’s US Airways – Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Int’l

Following merger mania and the original consolidation of the US airline industry beginning in 2006, Florida became a haven for the insurgent Low Cost Carriers (LCC’s). Delta’s hub in Orlando which had gone through many stages of development with pull downs and build ups was finally closed in 2008 after 20 years. American became further entrenched in Miami, while Fort Lauderdale which had previously been a battle ground between legacy carriers American, Delta and US Airways transitioned quickly to a battleground between LCC’s JetBlue and Spirit with Southwest expanding rapidly at the airport to secure a similar market share that the airline had already established in Tampa and Orlando.

Let’s look back at the three mini-hubs mentioned above.

Northwest Orient was a carrier that in the early 1980’s had vast network of flights to Asia but little domestic presence outside the upper Midwest. The attempts to build a mini-hub at Tampa Int’l which lasted from about 1983 to 1987 as successful in establishing the airline’s presence in Florida. However, it was eventually pulled apart. Of note NWA Flight 1 ran Fort Lauderdale-Tampa-Los Angeles-Tokyo (Narita), giving Florida a direct route on a US airline to Japan for the first time ever. A full list of Northwest Orient destinations from Tampa is listed below.

In 1991, United Airlines which had long been an also-ran in Florida despite being the nation’s largest airline since the mid 1980’s (replacing Miami based Eastern which was by that time in terminal decline) announced they would build a domestic hub operation in Orlando. The hub launched in October 1991 but never got past the focus city stage due to competition from Delta and US Air in addition to United acquiring Pan Am’s remaining Latin American routes in 1992 which were largely based around Miami. The need to fill planes to Miami to feed flights to Latin America made Orlando repetitive and the focus city disappeared by 1994 with little expansion after its initial opening. United shut its Miami hub down after 9/11.

In 2004, US Airways was plunged in bankruptcy and had dismantled both its Pittsburgh hub and its once-successful intra-state Florida operation. But interestingly while the airline used bankruptcy to dump long-term gate leases they had signed at Tampa and Orlando’s airports they continued to hoard gates in Fort Lauderdale despite scaling down operations throughout the state. The reason soon became clear -US Airways intended to first open an international gateway that would eventually become a full blown hub in Fort Lauderdale.

Even once the operation ramped up, US Airways domestic market share in Fort Lauderdale never overtook Delta, American or Southwest . The airline was however the second largest international carrier from the airport and the largest US based one (Air Canada carried more international passengers from Fort Lauderdale from the late 1990’s until 2013 than any US airline. In 2014, they were overtaken by JetBlue Airways).  US Airways merged with America West whose management took control of the new airline and was not infatuated with the idea of competing in a difficult marketplace. The US Airways focus city was dismantled in the Summer 2006 and was quickly replaced by a similar operation serving almost the same cities by Spirit Airlines who had come under the leadership of several members of the former US Airways management team that had conceived the hub in the first place. Thus, Spirit’s operation out Fort Lauderdale at least in terms of destinations served today might represent where the US Airways operation would have ended up destination wise had the plan been seen out.


Northwest Orient  Tampa  Nonstop Destinations March 2, 1986 


Chicago ORD


Fort Lauderdale

Fort Myers

Los Angeles



Minneapolis/St Paul

New York – JFK



West Palm Beach

United Orlando Nonstop Destinations March 1992


Chicago – MDW

Chicago – ORD


Fort Lauderdale

Fort Myers


Los Angeles

Mexico City



New York LGA

San Francisco

Washington DCA

Washington IAD

West Palm Beach

US Airways Fort Lauderdale Nonstop Destinations March 1, 2005






Guatemala City


Montego Bay


New York – LGA

Panama City (Panama)




San Jose (Costa Rica)

San Juan

San Salvador

Santo Domingo

Washington (National)

US Airways Express

Key West


Code Share

Chicago – O’Hare (United)

Denver (United)

Freeport (Bahamasair)

Nassau (Bahamasair)


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