O'Hare no longer United's biggest hub

May 26, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Chicago has lost jobs, conventions, population, Marshall Field's, the Olympics, and now, one more: O'Hare Airport is no longer home to United Airlines's largest hub.

The carrier that still call's itself Chicago's hometown airline is still headquartered here with 3,000 jobs.

However, since the merger with Continental, Chicago is no longer home to the new airline's biggest travel hub.

Thursday, on the cusp of the first summertime holiday, United gates were all occupied.

It was the same story on the southern end of the country, at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, where United's merger partner is headquartered.

With fanfare only in Texas, the combination of Continental and United flights in and out of Houston has made this airport United's largest hub.

"This is an opportunity to work with a major corporate partner here to continue to be the largest hub of the largest airline in the world," said Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

At an event this week, United executives and Houston's mayor touted the airline's largest hub by announcing a $1 billion expansion and terminal renovation project.

The new airline, the largest in the world, brought together Continental's three U.S. hubs and United's operation spread among five hubs. The result is that now Chicago O'Hare operates 607 United flights per day, edged out by Houston's 630 each day, giving it the honor of biggest hub.

Houston ends 80 years of history for Chicago as united airlines' biggest hub, a system of flying passengers to one major airport and dispersing them to smaller cities, a hub and spoke method that served Chicago and United through its heyday of air travel, through the lean times, and into the new millennium.

"This is the first phase of a billion-dollar project, and it's very important to us as we continue our commitment to this city...bringing more flights, more jobs more growth to this great city... and I can assure you that the new United is committed to Houston," said United President and CEO Jeff Smisek.

As United is committed to Houston, United officials in Chicago are quick to remind that the dollars of their headquarters are still in Chicago, and they say that is more valuable than whatever prestige there may be in claiming the airline's largest hub.

According to a spokesperson for United in Chicago, O'Hare is the only U.S. airport with two hubs operated by "legacy airlines that are also known as hub and spoke carriers," American and United.

Following emails to the I-Team from several aviation industry experts pointing out that other airports are dual hubs, the Chicago Dept. of Aviation issued this revised statement:

Statement from Chicago Dept. of Aviation

O'Hare International Airport uniquely has two of the largest airlines providing domestic and international long-haul hubbing operations in the traditional sense of how legacy carriers operate hub-and-spoke systems.

As the commercial aviation industry has evolved, new entrant carriers and legacy carriers have created concentrations of flights at other airports for a variety of purposes, but those examples differ from the traditional hubbing systems in place at O'Hare in that they do not comprehensively connect domestic and international networks.

Chicago's geography along with its strong local market support its unique situation. While the coastal airports may service strong local markets or provide geographical advantages to certain international connections, Chicago is distinctively balanced in its qualities.

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