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Airlines are flying some unexpected routes during the pandemic. Will they stick around?

Oct. 05, 2020
9 min read
JetBlue A321 & American A321T at LAX
Airlines are flying some unexpected routes during the pandemic. Will they stick around?
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Things are looking a little different at Newark Liberty airport these days.

United Airlines globes are still the most common tail at the field but JetBlue Airways' distinct blue fins are an increasingly common sight at the New York City area's second-busiest gateway. JetBlue, the hometown airline with its main base at nearby John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport, has added nine new routes from Newark since the pandemic hit and plans to add another seven in November — building a new base on the New Jersey side of Manhattan.

That growth — away from established hubs or focus cities — would have been unlikely in previous years. But, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has upended traditional airline route planning. With business travel nearly non-existent, carriers are scrambling to add flights in outdoor-oriented markets like beaches, mountains and national parks where pandemic demand has been driven by holidaygoers. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue, United and others have all added routes like these that are outside of their pre-crisis, hub or base-focused networks.

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A JetBlue A320 at Newark airport. (Image by Zach Griff/TPG)
A JetBlue A320 with United tails in the background at Newark airport. (Image by Zach Griff/TPG)

Nick, a New Jersey-resident and regular traveler, told TPG that he is "ecstatic" about the new JetBlue routes. As a flyer from either Newark or Philadelphia (PHL) airports, the new service provides him a convenient alternative to other airlines.

Nuzzi has already flown on JetBlue's posh Mint service between Newark and Los Angeles (LAX) and has booked tickets to Cancun (CUN) for this winter.

JetBlue is not alone. Alaska has added new nonstops to Palm Springs (PSP), as well as expanded its Los Angeles base. American will add three new nonstop routes to Cancun (CUN) — from Columbus (CMH), Indianapolis (IND) and St. Louis (STL) — this winter, and United is adding at least 17 routes to Florida that bypass its hubs. Even Southwest Airlines is heading to Miami (MIA) this winter; a high-cost, hub airport that few would have anticipated pre-pandemic as someplace where Southwest might land.

Related: United Airlines adds 17 routes to Florida, bypassing hubs in pandemic route-map shakeup

“In a way, this is the best time to test new destinations and new routes,” Atmosphere Research president Henry Harteveldt told TPG. “If you don’t take a risk now, it may be more difficult to do so when things get back to normal and there is pressure to generate [financial] returns.”

There is little downside to testing new routes right now. Airlines are losing millions of dollars every month and the new routes are more about capturing the few leisure flyers — and their travel dollars — out there than adding the most profitable routes. Every carrier would like to turn a profit, but — for now — they're looking for revenue wherever they can find it.

JetBlue, for one, has unveiled more than 60 new routes since COVID-19 hit U.S. airlines hard in March. While not all of the nonstop flights skip its bases, Los Angeles — where a new base opens Oct. 7 — and Newark are the big winners. Each are getting more than 10 new routes. In addition, Hartford (BDL), Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and Tampa (TPA) all gain at least four new nonstops.

Related: JetBlue continues push beyond focus cities, challenges Delta, United with 24 new routes

“This is different for us," Scott Laurence, JetBlue’s head of revenue and planning, told TPG in an exclusive interview Wednesday. "It’s driven out of the fact that we’ve seen business travel evaporate and is probably not coming back anytime soon.”

The results have been mixed so far. While JetBlue is generally "pleased" with the performance of the new flights, ones between Newark and the West Coast have done well but others — like those between New York JFK and other airlines' hubs — have not, Laurence said.

JetBlue has trimmed the number of flights it offers on underperforming routes, though it has not cut those rouse outright. For example in June, it announced up to twice-daily flights between JFK and both American's Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) hub and Delta Air Lines' Detroit (DTW) hub. The airline is flying both routes just four-times-per-week today, according to Cirium schedules.

Related: Alaska Airlines adds 5 new LA, Palm Springs routes ahead of JetBlue, Southwest expansion

Philadelphia International Airport director of air service and cargo development Stephanie Wear describes the new routes as "opportunistic," but not necessarily outside of JetBlue's wheelhouse.

"PHL has many business and leisure characteristics that are in parallel to Boston in terms of demographics — JetBlue looks at us as way to play to their strengths," she told TPG in an email. "We know that out of this major industry crisis, there will be opportunities that take shape and we want to be prepared for that."

The airport has seen all of its carriers pivot strategies since the pandemic began. American has suspended all long-haul international flying from its Philadelphia hub until 2021 and the airline will fly nearly 60% fewer seats from the city in October than it did last year, Cirium shows.

Overall, Philadelphia will see airlines fly 57% fewer seats year-over-year in October, according to Cirium. Seats on JetBlue will be down just 45% compared to 2019 as its shuttle-like service to Boston (BOS) remains suspended.

Related: Palm Springs is booming with new flights during the pandemic

JetBlue, Frontier and Southwest planes at Philadelphia airport. (Image courtesy of Philadelphia International Airport)
JetBlue, Frontier and Southwest planes at Philadelphia airport in 2018. (Image courtesy of Philadelphia International Airport)

“This is a non-linear recovery," said Laurence noting that business travel on routes like Boston-Philadelphia remains nearly non-existent today — nearly seven months after COVID-19 hit the U.S.

Until business travel comes back, airlines are likely to continue to try new things outside their typical route map wheelhouse. Some things will work and could stick around once there is a vaccine and travel begins a full recovery; other routes will not and will likely disappear with little fanfare.

Speaking on the boom in air service to Palm Springs, Harteveldt said we will not know which flights work and which ones do not until after the winter season. The same goes for the numerous new nonstops to Florida and other warm weather destinations that Alaska, American, JetBlue, Southwest and United are adding.

Related: More than 30,000 furloughs begin as ‘terrible Thursday’ arrives for airlines

All of these route tests come as U.S. airlines face an uncertain outlook. More than 40,000 employees have been or are being furloughed or laid off from their jobs following the expiration of federal coronavirus aid, or CARES Act, protections on Sept. 30. The CEOs of American, Southwest and United have said that, barring additional government aid, the will likely have to reduce air service and cut money-losing destinations.

So while Los Angeles and Newark may be seeing a pandemic boom of new flights, small communities like Florence, South Carolina (FLO), and New Haven, Connecticut (HVN), stand to lose air service entirely.

“You can look at this as an opportunity to reset," Kevin Healy, president and CEO of Campbell-Hill Aviation Group, an air service advisory firm, told TPG in April. The reset has not been exactly as planned but it is clearer today than six months ago how different airline maps will look after COVID-19.

Related: How will airlines rebuild their route maps after the coronavirus?

Below are non-hub routes added by Alaska, American and United.

Alaska

  • Palm Springs - Boise (BOI), Reno (RNO) and San Jose, California (SJC) from Dec. 17
  • San Diego (SAN) - Jackson Hole (JAC) from Dec. 17; Missoula, Montana (MSO) from March 11, 2021
  • San Jose - Spokane (GEG) from Sept. 1; Jackson Hole from Dec. 17; and Missoula and Redmond/Bend, Oregon (RDM) from March 11, 2021

American

  • Cancun - Columbus, Indianapolis and St. Louis from Dec. 19

United

  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL) - Boston, Cleveland and New York LaGuardia from Nov. 6
  • Fort Myers (RSW) - Boston, Cleveland and New York LaGuardia from Nov. 6; and Columbus (CMH), Indianapolis (IND), Milwaukee (MKE) and Pittsburgh (PIT) from Dec. 17
  • Orlando (MCO) - Boston, Cleveland and New York LaGuardia from Nov. 6
  • Tampa - Boston, Cleveland and New York LaGuardia from Nov. 6; and Milwaukee from Dec. 17
  • West Palm Beach (PBI) - New York LaGuardia from Dec. 17
Featured image by (Photo by Ryan Patterson)

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