Pandemic redraws US airline route maps as business travel falters

US airlines are redrawing the flight map of America as they cut routes that the Covid-19 pandemic rendered unviable and add new service to cities that have prospered during the pandemic.

A widespread reshuffling is under way, with less service to traditional business hubs and jets redeployed to holiday destinations and on-the-rise cities, according to domestic flight data from Cirium, an aviation consultancy. Meanwhile, some less populated regions were further isolated as carriers reduced service.

US airlines could also trim more flights to contend with jet fuel prices that have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected oil markets.

The number of domestic flights scheduled at 11 mainline US airlines was 1.63mn in the first quarter of 2022, down by 12 per cent compared to the same period in 2019, a Financial Times analysis of the Cirium data showed.

The country’s largest carriers, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines, together had 14.8 per cent fewer domestic flights on their rosters and 8.3 per cent fewer seats.

Persistent weakness in travel for business has led the declines. US airlines reported in recent earnings calls that business travel was running at about 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels for United and Delta and only 40 percent for large corporations flying on American.

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Domestic flights into Chicago’s two major airports were down by more than 20 percent in the first quarter of 2022, with routes to business centers and international connection hubs such as Boston, New York and Washington particularly affected, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Travel inside California was also down sharply, with 28 per cent fewer flights. The corridor between San Francisco International airport and Los Angeles International airport was the route with the country’s biggest decrease: 3,833 fewer flights were scheduled in the first quarter of this year, a 43 per cent drop from the same period in 2019.

As in Chicago, California airports have been hit by a lack of international and business demand, said Matt Barton, an aviation economist and partner at Flightpath Economics, a consultancy.

“SFO [the San Francisco airport] has always benefited from being the gateway to the Pacific, ”as well as“ massive demand – and very profitable demand – from technology companies ”, he said. The technology sector has been one of the greatest adopters of remote work, which has eliminated some business travel.

Many smaller regional airports in states including Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and New York also lost service. In the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee, domestic flights were down by 809 – a third – compared to the first quarter of 2019. United cut more than 60 per cent of its service, while Delta scrapped its direct service from New York’s LaGuardia airport.

“What’s important to us, being a smaller regional airport, is to have the connectivity in and out of the community,” said Terry Hart, Chattanooga airport’s chief executive.

He said that roughly two-thirds of the airport’s traffic was normally business travelers. When people emerged from pandemic lockdowns and began to seek outdoor adventure, service to Chattanooga barely grew because “I do not have a beach and I do not have the mountains out west,” Hart said.

The three largest US carriers often hire regional airlines such as SkyWest, Republic Airways, and Endeavor Air under a contract to operate and maintain aircraft under their banners, primarily for shorter routes or service to smaller airports. The regional airlines have for years struggled to hire and retain pilots.

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The regional service cuts now being compounded by the pandemic “are driven, at least in part, by the availability of pilots at the regional airlines”, Barton said. “All of those [regionals] continue to have massive challenges with respect to hiring and retaining qualified cockpit personnel. ” American, United, and Delta all acknowledged in their earnings calls that pilot staffing shortages on regional carriers had led to flight cuts.

“If your community is served by 50-seat, single-class regional jets, there’s a likelihood that you’re going to lose service,” or see it curtailed, said Dan Akins, another aviation economist and partner at Flightpath.

The surge in oil prices complicates service decisions, forcing domestic airlines to reduce capacity during off-peak periods, said Savanthi Syth, an analyst at Raymond James. With travel demand still depressed, “it is tougher to absorb these kind[s] of fuel shocks, ”she said.

Even as some cities receive less service, US airlines have added flights to certain up-and-coming cities and holiday destinations.

Austin, Texas, which has boomed throughout the pandemic, enjoyed a 37 percent increase in domestic flights. In Florida, carriers planned 28,324 flights this quarter to Miami International airport, up 27 percent from the first quarter of 2019, while Miami-New York service nearly doubled.

Such vacation destinations as Sarasota and Key West in Florida along with Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Bozeman, Montana; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are also accommodating more flights.

Maine’s Portland International jetport has suffered from a lack of business travel this quarter, with domestic flights down 15 per cent from the first quarter of 2019. But as a popular summer destination, capacity hit an all time record last August, according to airport director Paul Bradbury. “It was really the airlines chasing the leisure [travel]”He said.

Flight roster data from Cirium were queried on January 21 2022 and represent all scheduled flights in the first quarter of 2019 and in the first quarter of 2022. Aggregate data for American, Delta and United or overall changes in domestic flights and intra-California flights were queried on February 11 2022.

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