‘Extraordinary’ Drop in U.S. Flights as Virus Catches Up

(Bloomberg) -- For weeks, airline schedules in the U.S. remained near normal even as Covid-19 infections spread around the globe and international routes were trimmed.

But schedules have fallen off a cliff in recent days.

As of 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time Monday, the four major carriers had cut more than 5,000 flights from their schedules, or 38% of the total scheduled until then, according to data from the website FlightAware.

American Airlines Group Inc. cut 1,452 flights or 44% of its flights scheduled through noon. Delta Air Lines Inc. dropped 1,324 or 37%, according to FlightAware. Similar drops were occurring for smaller carriers such as JetBlue Airways Corp. and Alaska Air Group Inc., as well as the regional airlines that fly under contract for the majors.

“This is extraordinary,” said John Hansman, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the air-traffic system. “The only thing I can think of close to it was the controller strike under Reagan.”

A strike by air-traffic controllers in 1981 prompted President Ronald Reagan to fire more than 11,000 controllers and caused lengthy disruptions to the system.

“Due to decreased customer demand, we have made several changes to our schedule in this rapidly changing environment,” said American spokesman Ross Feinstein. “Customers who are impacted by these cancellations will be contacted directly.”

At least 11 air-traffic facilities operated by the Federal Aviation Administration have been hit with disruptions as a result of employees testing positive for the virus, according to agency data.

While most of the impacts have been relatively minor so far, delays and cancellations have reverberated for days at Las Vegas McCarran International and Chicago Midway. Some controllers at the Las Vegas facility are in isolation after a colleague tested positive last week and Midway is still being cleaned, according to the FAA.

There were more than 900 cancellations at the two airports on Monday, according to FlightAware.

However, the flight reductions that began late last week are occurring across the aviation system. There were more than 1,000 fewer flights into and out of the largest U.S. airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, according to FlightAware.

Early last week, the number of domestic flights was roughly the same as on equivalent days in 2019, according to FlightAware. By Thursday, airlines began dramatically paring schedules. Flights fell 22% on Saturday and 27% on Sunday, compared to data from a year ago. Worldwide, the fall has been even steeper. On Sunday, there were 48% fewer flights in all countries than a year ago, FightAware data show.

Most U.S. carriers have announced plans to reduce their schedules starting in April. But the recent cuts suggest they are moving earlier as demand plunges.

Southwest Airlines Co. told workers Monday that it would increase daily cancellations to 1,500, or nearly 38% of its schedule, starting March 27. The news came just three days after the carrier said it would drop 1,000 flights each day because of deteriorating demand. The latest numbers are on top of a broader reduction that will start on April 14.

Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email that the carrier “expects to strategically cancel flights this week where load factors are extremely light out of cost-saving considerations as we continue to manage the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The schedule reduction goes beyond a drop in international flights, Durrant said. Customers are being automatically rebooked if flights are canceled, he said.

The flight-tracking website Flightradar24 was showing a dramatic reduction in the number of aircraft over southern Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, a reduction of 2,000 planes or about a 36% drop, said Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for the company.

By comparison, airlines canceled only 1.82% of flights in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

With loads falling dramatically as people shelter in place, it makes sense for carriers to trim their schedules, said Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. If only 20% of seats are filled, carriers can’t even cover their costs for a flight unless they are all high-dollar travelers, Mann said.

“Inevitably, whatever you thought you were going to fly based on the demand you saw when you were creating the schedule, it’s much worse,” he said. “You’re constantly fighting this battle of demand being destroyed faster than you can reschedule the airline.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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