What Is The Difference Between An Airline Base And A Hub?

Budget airline Wizz Air is establishing bases all over Europe- from its (delayed) plan in Cardiff to numerous Italian bases and several around the Balkans. However, some of these bases have just a single aircraft stationed there- something very different from what we might see with legacy carriers and their hubs (which also act as bases). Considering this, let’s take a look at these aviation terms and how they differ.

Ryanair Lufthansa
Ryanair previously had crew bases in Germany but recently shut them down due to disputes with its German pilots. Meanwhile, Frankfurt is one of two Lufthansa hubs. Photo: Getty Images

What is an airline base?

While the word “base” can be used to define large, vast facilities (i.e., military bases), reality can be different for airlines – especially low-cost carriers. In fact, it can actually be as simple as a single aircraft and a handful of crew forming a base.

CAPA defines a base (or airport base in this specific context) as an airport where an airline permanently bases aircraft and crew and from where it operates routes. Expanding on its definition, CAPA adds:

“Both fleet and personnel return to the base at the end of the day. The aircraft based at the airport do not necessarily always have to be the same tail numbers, but the airline will typically keep a consistent complement of aircraft at a base.”

In this kind of setup, flight attendants and pilots come from the area surrounding the base and report to work from their “home address.” This concept is opposite to an airline’s outstation, where an airport is merely a destination from which to deliver and pick up passengers. At an outstation, the aircraft will only spend time at the airport conducting its turnaround rather than parking there for downtime/short-term storage or maintenance.

Wizz A320
Wizz Air has established a number of bases around Europe, even throughout the global health crisis. Photo: Wizz Air

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Defining airport hubs

Calling an airport an airline’s hub is more about its style of operations. While bases don’t have to be hubs, hubs are almost always bases for airlines.

The ‘hub’ portion of the ‘hub and spoke’ model, hub airports are those which airlines choose to connect passengers through- a practice which is much more common with full service, legacy carriers. This will see customers book a flight from Point A to Point C, requiring a stopover or transfer at Point B.

For small countries, this is typically a single airport- think Hong Kong for Cathay Pacific, Doha for Qatar Airways, Amsterdam for KLM. Airlines serving larger countries tend to have multiple hubs. Air Canada has hubs in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal, while south of the border, United’s larger hubs are at Denver, Newark, and Houston (although there are a few more).

The facilities selected as hub airports for airlines will also act as a base in the sense that aircraft and crew are ‘based’ out of the airport, living in the surrounding city. The airline will also tend to have some maintenance facilities at hubs, where jets can be serviced during downtime.

American Airlines CRJ
New York JFK is a major hub for American Airlines. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

In the context of a budget airline running point-to-point operations (primarily found in Europe), it should be clear that bases aren’t hubs. Indeed, hubs don’t really exist for these types of carriers, and you typically wouldn’t be able to book a connecting itinerary that would see a guaranteed connection through one of its bases.

Foreign crew bases

To complicate definitions just a little, we also have foreign crew bases. These are typically established by legacy carriers that operate long and ultra-long-haul flights.

A foreign crew base won’t typically house an airline’s aircraft (unless we’re talking about Qantas’ LAX maintenance base), but it will be the ‘home airport’ for international crew members.

These foreign bases are established due to the long-distance nature of the flights between the airline’s home airport and a destination. After crews have been on duty for 12 or more hours (likely being awake for much longer), they’re expected to spend some time at their destination off-duty, recovering and resting. Taking over for the return flight might be foreign crew based at this destination. Sadly, with the global health crisis, some airlines have had to shut down their foreign crew bases.

Cathay Pacific 777
Until recently, Cathay Pacific has had foreign crew bases in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. However, due to the crisis, it has had to shut them down. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Hopefully, this article has provided a clearer sense of the difference between these aviation-related terms.

Did you know the difference between hubs and bases? Let us know by leaving a comment.