There's a new shortest airline route in the US and it's just 29 miles
American Airlines has a new feather in its cap: the new shortest route in the U.S., and it has the federal government's coronavirus aid package to thank for it.
In order to meet the conditions of the CARES Act aid it received, the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier is flying a circular route to destinations in the mountains of Colorado: Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Vail (EGE), on to Aspen (ASE), then Montrose (MTJ) and back to Dallas/Fort Worth, according to Cirium schedule data. The Vail-Aspen leg, at 29 miles, is the new -- if temporary -- shortest flight in the U.S. on a major carrier.
And no, passengers do not have to get off the plane at each stop.
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American is operating the entire route with a 65-seat Bombardier CRJ700 through June 1, Cirium shows. The flight, AA2986, operates five-times-a-week from Thursday through Monday.
The carrier is selling the Vail-Aspen leg for just $46 one way on May 21, though residents across much of the U.S. are encouraged to avoid all non-essential travel. Flight time is 35 minutes.
U.S. airlines have gone to great lengths to comply with the requirements in the CARES Act that require them to serve all of their existing destinations in order to be eligible for aid. Many have sought waivers, though with mixed success. Others have consolidated routes by making one city a "tag" onto another route.
Related: A complete list of major airlines' coronavirus change and cancellation policies
For example, Alaska Airlines consolidated its nonstop flights between Seattle (SEA) and both Baltimore/Washington (BWI) and Pittsburgh (PIT) into a single flight from Seattle to Pittsburgh and on to Baltimore. The airline is even selling stand-alone itineraries between the cities, with Pittsburgh-BWI round-trips going for $256 and up during the week of May 20.
Still, many flights are operating nearly empty. Data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A) shows an average of just 31 people on flights in the U.S. during the week ending May 12. The number of people on flights is trending up -- from a low of fewer than 10 per flight -- but that comes only after airlines have slashed more than 80% of their schedules.
"We shouldn’t be flying airplanes that are empty," A4A president and CEO told senators at a hearing on May 6.
Since then, the Department of Transportation has slightly eased the CARES Act flight schedule rules. Airlines can now suspend service to up to 11 cities on their maps, with the regulator ensuring that flights continue to every commercial airport across the country on at least one carrier.
Related: These are the only long-haul routes American, Delta and United plan to fly in May
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Even with the new flexibility, American is not expected to suspend flights to Aspen, Montrose or Vail in Colorado. Bill Tomcich, an Aspen-based air service consultant with Airplanners, told The Colorado Sun on May 14 that bookings to the mountain towns are starting to pick up for the summer.
But American's claim to America's shortest commercial air route will be short lived. Nonstop round-trip flights between both Aspen and Vail and its Dallas/Fort Worth hub resume on June 4, according to Cirium.
Alaska will reclaim the title when American's Aspen and Vail nonstops resume. Its 31-mile hop from Petersburg (PSG) to Wrangell (WRG) in its namesake state on a Boeing 737 will again be the shortest route in the U.S. on a major carrier.
Related: Air travel travel won’t return to pre-coronvirus levels until 2023, airline group predicts