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How airlines plan their routes

Ever wondered how airlines choose where to fly? Or become frustrated that you can't get a direct flight to a certain airport? At Skyscanner Australia, we reveal the mystery behind flight pricing.

We look at some of the major factors in how an airline chooses a route, including:

Passenger demand

One of the main considerations an airline takes is how much money they’re going to make from a route. For this, they need passenger demand. There’s no use putting on daily flights between two cities if they’re going to be mostly empty.

Most people book flights based on their travel intentions, not necessarily where a certain airline can take them. That’s why there are more flights to Sydney, to Melbourne, to Paris, London and New York. It’s because people want to go there.

Seasonal demand

Sometimes airlines only run flights, or increase how many flights are available, at certain times of the year.

For example, Virgin Australia offers flights between Newcastle and Auckland over summer, but not the rest of the year. Their forecasts show a high demand for this route in the summer months, but that their planes could be put to better use elsewhere.

Other destinations are more popular in the winter. Queenstown, for instance, or the airports near Hokkaido are in much higher demand when the ski season is in full swing.

Hub airports

Each airline has a hub airport that it bases its operations from. Some may have a few secondary hubs as well to help with the workload too.

What this does is help with plane management. Singapore Airlines, for example, might have a few flights in the mornings that go from multiple airports in Australia and Asia and then a few flights in the afternoon that go on to Europe. This helps them to offer long-haul flights more easily — as well as accommodating those who want to have a holiday in Singapore.

Knowing about hub airports is a great way to plan a multi-city break. Knowing that an Emirates flight will let you see Dubai, Cathay will take you through Hong Kong and China Southern to Guangzhou will help you book the trip you most want.

Flight path

How do airlines choose where in the sky their planes will be? That takes a number of factors into account. The most important is how to get there most quickly. Keeping a plane in the air is expensive and no passenger wants to fly longer than they have to.

Although flight paths often don’t look straight, this is because pilots take into account the curvature of the planet and wind forecasts.

Safety and smooth flying is also taken into account. If an area is likely to have high turbulence, it’s generally avoided.

Competition

Sometimes it pays to see what other airlines are doing. If one carrier has a monopoly on a popular route, others may try to muscle in on this territory.

This can be a slightly dangerous way to proceed. Sometimes the existing airline is known for that route or already knows that one flight a week is enough. However, other times it may be important to get in early before even more airlines are jostling for position.

Airport capacity

There’s a limit on how many planes can land and take off from each airport. It’s why we’ve been hearing so much talk about a second Sydney airport for so long — they want more passengers and more planes into NSW.

Some smaller airports can only receive smaller planes, so if it’s only profitable to fly a Boeing 777 once a week, they may have to re-evaluate.

Other restrictions, such as night-time curfews, may also come into play.

Airport costs

Each time a plane lands at an airport, the airline has to pay a fee. While this should be covered by ticket fees, it’s a reason that some airports attract more low-cost carriers.

In cities where there are two airports, or countries where there are a few big cities to choose from, this can play a factor in an airline’s choice.

Tourism boards

Often, local tourism boards will work with airlines to make their city more attractive.

This will most likely be a two-way agreement, with the cities at each end promoting the other. This may be done through travel agents, airport advertising and other promotion through the cities.

By having tourism boards onside, this can help an airline make a new route slightly less risky and a little bit more popular.

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