Nerd Bird: the End of an Era

Scott Francis
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Several sources have reported and commented on American Airlines‘ decision to end the Nerd Bird, an iconic flight (if ever there was such a thing) between Austin and San Jose, the respective tech capitals of Texas and California. This direct flight has tied these two tech communities together in ways that are hard to explain, but a quote from the Statesman’s article today does an admirable job if you read between the lines of these statistics:
In 1996, Fast Company magazine surveyed passengers on one Nerd Bird flight and found that 75 percent carried a laptop, 56 percent carried a pager, 52 percent carried a cell phone and 12 percent carried a personal digital assistant. Thirty-five percent said they took the flight at least once every two weeks, and 58 percent had a favorite seat.
If you take a minute to think back to your life in 1996, I think you’ll realize how remarkable these statistics are.  I was one of these laptop-toting high-tech travelers back then, but even I didn’t have a cell phone yet.  And in 1996, you might pay $1000 for 16MB (yes, MegaBytes) of RAM in your laptop… Laptops were not cheap.  I flew the route so often that I recognized the crew and pilots more often than not, and many of the passengers.  One pilot’s friendly banter got a little stale when he woke me up with the PA system to tell us that if we looked out the left side of the plane we could see the grand canyon… on a clear day.  It was cloudy. The Austin-American Statesman drew 44 comments to their posting online, most of them irate or reflecting disbelief. The official line is that the route is unprofitable.  Although I don’t fly the route regularly anymore, I’ve never been on this flight and not had every seat filled.  I think the level of frustration expressed in the comments reflects the common sense most consumers would apply to this problem:  if you’re flight is full, and you’re not making money, raise your prices.  I think, instead, AA is looking at their system-wide profits and they see removing this flight as a way to increase utilization on Austin to Dallas flights that aren’t all filled to capacity, as well as Dallas to SJC flights that aren’t filled to capacity – in other words, this change is likely not about the AUS->SJC flight.  It is likely about the other network effects of the change. But all is not lost.  While there is now no direct flight to the San Jose Airport (SJC), it seems ripe for Southwest to start running that route given that they are both the largest carrier in and out of Austin (in terms of flights and passengers), as well as the largest or second-largest carrier out of San Jose (in terms of flights and passengers).  And in the meantime, JetBlue flies a great flight between Austin and San Francisco (SFO), with 2 spacious seats on each side of the aisle, a DirecTV tv on every seat, and brand-new planes.  The only problem is that they need to add a second flight per day – currently they only run an evening flight from AUS to SFO, and a morning flight from SFO to AUS, which cuts down on travel options if you originate in Austin. I used to fly American quite a bit out of Austin, and one of the big reasons was that they provided a lot of nonstop flights, plus the ability to get almost anywhere through DFW.  However, over the years the numer of nonstop flights offered by American actually decreased, while the total number of nonstop flights from Austin has increased (reaching a peak of 39 out-of-state nonstop destinations in 2008).  A few of those flights have been cancelled since then, so the number might be 35 or so now. But as American has pulled back from direct flights, others have stepped up.  For example, American cancelled their direct flight to Seattle (adding 2 hours to a 4 hour flight by switching in Dallas).  But Alaska Air has picked up that route.  American cancelled direct flights to Boston when the tech bubble burst.  But nonstop flights picked up on JetBlue, using the same great Embraer jets that JetBlue flies to San Francisco.  My next trip is a nonstop flight from Austin to Baltimore on Southwest. There were reasonably priced flights on American and Continental, but they required layovers in Dallas and Houston, which add 2 hours to flight time with no extra value for the traveler.  I just believe the future of flying from Austin will be nonstop flights, and American (and Continental) are going to miss out on the growth in travel in and out of Austin by pulling back from their direct flight commitments.