Pandemic redraws US airline route maps as business travel falters

Pandemic redraws US airline route maps as business travel falters

US airlines are redrawing America’s flight map as they cut routes the Covid-19 pandemic has rendered unviable and add new services to cities that have thrived during the pandemic.

A widespread reshuffle is underway, with fewer services to traditional business hubs and jets redeployed to holiday destinations and booming cities, according to domestic flight data from Cirium, an aviation consultancy. . Meanwhile, some less populated areas have been further isolated as carriers cut service.

U.S. airlines may also further cut flights to deal with soaring jet fuel prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hit oil markets.

The number of domestic flights scheduled on 11 major US airlines was 1.63 million in the first quarter of 2022, down 12% from the same period in 2019, according to a Financial Times analysis of Cirium data.

The nation’s largest carriers, American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, together had 14.8% fewer domestic flights on their slates and 8.3% fewer seats.

Continued weakness in business travel was behind the declines. US airlines reported in recent earnings calls that business travel was operating at around 60% of pre-pandemic levels for United and Delta and just 40% for large companies traveling on American.

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Domestic flights to Chicago’s two major airports were down more than 20% in the first quarter of 2022, with connections to business centers and international connection hubs such as Boston, New York and Washington taking a particularly hard hit, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Travel within California also fell sharply, with 28% fewer flights. The corridor between San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport was the route with the largest decline in the country: 3,833 fewer flights were scheduled in the first quarter of this year, a drop of 43 % compared to the same period in 2019.

Like Chicago, California airports have been hit by a lack of international and commercial demand, said Matt Barton, an aviation economist and partner at Flightpath Economics, a consulting firm.

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

Many smaller regional airports in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and New York also lost service. In the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee, domestic flights were down 809 – a third – from the first quarter of 2019. United has cut service by more than 60%, while Delta has cut direct service since 2019. New York LaGuardia Airport.

“What’s important to us, being a small regional airport, is having connectivity in and out of the community,” said Terry Hart, general manager of Chattanooga Airport.

He said about two-thirds of airport traffic was normally business travellers. When people emerged from pandemic shutdowns and began seeking outdoor adventure, service in Chattanooga barely increased because “I don’t have a beach and I don’t have the mountains to the west “Hart said.

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

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

“If your community is served by single-class, 50-seat regional jets, you’re likely to lose service,” or see it reduced, said Dan Akins, another aviation economist and Flightpath partner. .

Soaring oil prices are complicating service decisions, forcing domestic airlines to cut capacity during off-peak times, said Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth. With travel demand still depressed, “it’s harder to absorb these types[s] fuel-related shocks,” she said.

Even though some cities are getting less service, US airlines have added flights to some booming cities and vacation destinations.

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

Vacation destinations such as Sarasota and Key West in Florida as well as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Bozeman, Montana; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming are also seeing more flights.

The international jetport in Portland, Maine suffered from a lack of business travel this quarter, with domestic flights down 15% from the first quarter of 2019. But as a popular summer destination, the capacity hit an all-time high last August, according to airport manager Paul Bradbury. “It was really the airlines that were chasing leisure [travel],” he said.

Cirium flight listing data was queried on January 21, 2022 and represents all scheduled flights for Q1 2019 and Q1 2022. Aggregated data for American, Delta, and United or global changes in domestic flights and flights intra-Californians were interviewed on February 11, 2022.