In Oklahoma’s Airport Rivalry, Tulsa Leads OKC In Pandemic Recovery

As the pandemic recedes, Tulsa International Airport is making a rapid recovery, adding capacity more rapidly than peers and adding new markets, particularly American Airlines markets.

The gains give TUL some bragging rights over its rival, Will Rogers World Airport, 120 miles away in Oklahoma City, although OKC says it’s still early in the recovery process, especially for airports where regional jets have long provided service on key routes.

“A majority of airports are still trying to bring all of their pre-pandemic service back, but we’ve been able to do that while adding eight new non-stops,” said Andrew Pierini TUL executive vice president and chief commercial officer.

Both Tulsa and Oklahoma City have 24 non-stop destinations. In 2019, Tulsa had 17 and Oklahoma City had 28. Tulsa’s recovery also compares favorably to the rate at other airports in the region, including Albuquerque, Kansas City, Omaha and St. Louis, according to statistics the airport has compiled comparing passenger counts in October 2019 and October 2022.

“The story we have been telling the airlines has been about our passenger recovery, compared to other airports in the region, and across the USA,” Pierini said. “For 2022, we finished at 95% of our 2019 levels. We have 24 total nonstop destinations, which is up by a net of seven new non-stops since the end of 2019. A majority of airports are still trying bring all of their pre-pandemic service back, but we’ve been able to do that while adding eight new non-stops.”

Tulsa’s eight new destinations since 2019 include Washington National, New York LaGuardia, Miami, Washington National, Chicago Midway, Orlando, Phoenix Mesa and Sarasota. American Airlines added the first three; Southwest added Midway; Breeze added Orlando, and Allegiant added Phoenix Mesa and Sarasota. The one lost route for TUL has been Minneapolis, a Delta hub that it continues to try to restore.

Oklahoma City is recovering routes too, just not quite as quickly. “Recoveries have been all over the board,” said Jeff Mulder, OKC airports director. During 2022, he said, OKC had about 3.9 million passengers, while TUL had 2.8 million. “Historically, Oklahoma City has been 25% larger than Tulsa,” he said. “It seems we are about the same ratio as we have been. We’re about 90% or 95% of where we were in 2019, and we’re pleased with that.

“There are markets we haven’t restored yet,” Mulder said. Two key ones are Newark and San Francisco, both United hubs. “The issue impacting our market as well as Tulsa and everybody else is airlines don’t have the flight crews,” he said. “Hopefully, with the passage of time, they are able to catch up on pilots.”

The rivalry appears to be friendly. Mulder served as executive director of the Tulsa Airport Authority from 2005 to 2016, went to Florida to be executive director of Southwest Florida International Airport in in Fort Myers, then returned to Oklahoma in November 2021.

“We don’t really compete” for passengers, Pierini said; both airport officials said “leakage,” or passengers driving from one metro area to the other for flights, is minimal. Pierini also said that the American maintenance base in Tulsa, which employs about 6,000 people, doesn’t necessarily increase the number of American destinations, but it does mean that American has a large loyalty base in Tulsa.

Tulsa and Oklahoma City are both airports where American and Southwest are the dominant carriers.

At Tulsa in 2022, American had a 33% market share, while Southwest had 32%, United had 16%, Delta had 12% and Allegiant had 5%. At Oklahoma City, for March 2023, Southwest had 42%, American had 29%, Delta ad 12% and United has 12%.

American serves nine cities from Tulsa and eight from Oklahoma City: Southwest serves eight from Tulsa and 11 from Oklahoma City. Both airports have benefited from American’s push to dominate mid-country airports. American added OKC-LGA in 2021.

“So much of what is driving the economy, and is likely to continue to do so, are markets in the Sunbelt and the interiors of the country and less so the coastal markets,” said Vasu Raja, chief commercial officer, on the carrier’s January earnings call. In about 200 of its 300 cities, “We have a material schedule advantage to other airlines that operate there,” he said.

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