Legacy airlines and failed Florida hub/focus cities

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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.

Air Florida which had been restricted to intrastate service prior to deregulation exploded into an international carrier, slashing prices and creating a fare war for passengers. But by 1984, over-expansion killed Air Florida and the carrier collapsed.

Air Florida in 1982

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. Peaked at 14 nonstop destinations in 1986
  • 1990’s United –  Orlando Int’l. Peaked at 19 destinations in Spring 1992
  • 2000’s US Airways – Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Int’l. Peaked at 28 total destinations in March 2005 (18 mainline, 5 express and 6 codeshare – one destination, Nassau was both codeshare and express)

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 Tampa 1983-1986

Northwest Orient in 1983 at the time Tampa’s operation was ramped up

Northwest Orient was a carrier that in the early 1980’s after deregulation had vast network of flights to Asia but little domestic presence outside the upper Midwest.

The airline had scored a coup in the late 1960’s during the regulated era of airline service when they were granted traffic rights between Chicago and Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa, beating out American, TWA and United, all larger carrier in Chicago for the service. All three routes were also flown by Delta and Eastern under the CAB route awards.

Looking to build further on its Florida presence in the early 1980’s Northwest decided to build a mini-hub with banked connections in Tampa. The move was critical as the deregulated era had already turned several hyper-regional carriers into national ones, and Northwest had come out into the new era somewhat flat-footed in terms of expansion.

This operation lasted from about 1983 to 1986 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.

Tampa was de-hubbed when the airline merged with Republic, giving the new, larger carrier an established hub in Memphis.

A full list of Northwest Orient destinations from Tampa in 1986 is listed at the bottom of the article.

Northwest in 1986 including Tampa at its peak

United Orlando 1991-1995

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 airline intended Orlando to be the 5th domestic hub for the carrier and to eventually have over a 100 daily flights.

The hub launched in October 1991 with great fanfare. International service to Mexico City was launched but intense competition from Delta who had a full-fledged hub in Orlando at the time (which included a daily nonstop to Frankfurt) and USAir who had a large operation at the airport including at the time a large intrastate operation, hurt United’s efforts to develop a strong local Frequent Flier base.

In 1992, United acquired defunct Pan Am’s remaining Latin American routes in 1992 which were largely based around Miami and New York-JFK. Contemplated moving Latin American flights

Nonstops to cities in Florida and the Northeast were frequent but by late 1992, Philadelphia, Hartford, Milwaukee and New Orleans nonstops had all been dropped.

The need to fill planes to Miami to feed flights to Latin America made Orlando repetitive and the focus city disappeared by 1995 with little expansion after its initial opening. United shut its Miami hub down after 9/11 and ironically despite choosing Miami over Orlando, United never reached the number of daily flights or market share in Miami that they had in Orlando when they began ramping down the operation.

US Airways Fort Lauderdale 2004 to 2007

The closure of United’s Miami hub after 9/11 and the failed attempts to merge United and US Airways left the Star Alliance without a South Florida hub. In addition American Airlines, who dominated Miami and had crushed the competition from United in the 1990’s down the road in Miami, had moved aggressively into Fort Lauderdale adding international/Puerto Rico service to Nassau, San Juan, Port-Au-Prince, Santo Domingo and Caracas by mid-2003.

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, something airline analysts at the time felt was odd. The reason soon became clear -US Airways intended to open an international gateway that would eventually become a full blown hub in Fort Lauderdale. 

In 2005, US Airways and its partners had access to almost two dozen gates in Fort Lauderdale

In August 2004, the new focus city was announced and by November of that year US Airways applied for a number of international routes such as Fort Lauderdale to Port-Au-Prince, Port of Spain, Aruba and Bonaire which never began. In May 2005, as US Airways announced a merger with America West, service was discontinued from Fort Lauderdale to Panama City, Panama and San Salvador, El Salvador. Service to Guatemala City was moved to Charlotte in November 2005, but Fort Lauderdale got a new nonstop to Montego Bay as well as an additional daily run to Santo Domingo. 

Even once the operation ramped up, US Airways domestic market share in Fort Lauderdale never overtook Delta, American or Southwest . In fact, Delta continued to serve more nonstop destinations from Fort Lauderdale than US Airways throughout the period.

Merged America West/US Airways route map. Fort Lauderdale became less important to the merged airline but still clearly a focus of some sort

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).  

America West’s management that took control of the newly merged carrier and was not infatuated with the idea of competing in a difficult marketplace. Plans to launch service from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco as well as additional Caribbean destinations were scrapped in early 2006.

The US Airways focus city was dismantled between the Summer of 2006 and January 2007 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. By late 2007, Spirit’s route map out of Fort Lauderdale roughly resembled US Airways map two years earlier.

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 had the plan been seen out. Even by 2012, Spirit as depicted below had turned Fort Lauderdale into a major connecting operation. Today Spirit serves over 60 destinations nonstop from Fort Lauderdale and also has a large operation in Orlando serving over 30 nonstop destinations.

Spirit in 2012 – Fort Lauderdale hub is now about twice the size in terms of destination as this map represents

Below is each hub/focus city destination list at its peak

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 Orleans


New York – LGA


San Francisco

Washington – DCA

Washington – IAD

West Palm Beach

US Airways Fort Lauderdale Nonstop Destinations March 1, 2005






Guatemala City



New York – LGA

Panama City (Panama)




San Jose (Costa Rica)

San Juan

San Salvador

Santo Domingo

Washington- DCA

US Airways Express

Key West





Code Share

Chicago – ORD (United)

Denver (United)

Washington-IAD (United)

Freeport (Bahamasair)

George Town (Bahamasair)

Nassau (Bahamasair)

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