Palm Springs is booming with new flights during the pandemic. But is it sustainable?

Sep 24, 2020

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The California desert oasis of Palm Springs is known for its golf courses, mid-century modern architecture and infinite time loops.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic that has hit the travel industry harder than any past crisis, the city in the Sonoran Desert is seeing a flurry of new flights that makes Palm Springs one of the few places where air service is growing in 2020.

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines have all unveiled new flights to Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) in past months. Of the five carriers, the first four already serve the airport while it will be an entirely new dot for Dallas-based Southwest.

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All this added service could push the number of flights from Palm Springs above 2019 levels — something that would be a remarkable feat given how the coronavirus pandemic has decimated flight schedules elsewhere in the U.S. Domestically, airlines flew half of what they flew a year ago during the week ending Sept. 20, the latest Airlines for America (A4A) data shows.

In October — the latest month for which schedules are currently finalized, but before many of the new routes begin — flights at Palm Springs airport will be down just 14% compared to last year, according to Cirium schedule data. This is markedly better than nationally where airlines plan to fly roughly 45% less than in 2019.

Related: Alaska Airlines adds 3 new Palm Springs routes ahead of JetBlue, Southwest expansion

The growth stands out considering Palm Springs’ smaller size. The airport ranked 86th in the U.S. for traveler numbers in 2019, handling just under 2.6 million passengers, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data via Cirium.

Why, then, are all these airlines adding flights to Palm Springs at a time when few Americans are flying? The answer is likely some combination of the desert city’s outdoor amenities and a little bit of “wishin’ and hopin,’” as chanteuse Dusty Springfield put it in her 1960s hit song.

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(Photo courtesy of Visit Greater Palm Springs)
Inside the Palm Springs Airport. (Photo courtesy of the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Why Palm Springs?

Ask Colleen Pace, chief marketing officer of the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the destination is an “oasis” for “relaxation and rejuvenation.” She thinks is especially true during the pandemic, when many people are holed up in need of a break.

“People don’t recognize all that Palm Springs has to offer,” she said when asked what is bringing visitors to the Coachella Valley during the pandemic. The region benefits from numerous golf courses, pools and opportunities for outdoor activities like cycling and hiking. In addition, it is adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.

The outdoors has proved attractive to travelers during the pandemic. Beginning over the summer, airlines have reported higher numbers of flyers to destinations with open space — those with beaches, mountains and national parks — where people can easily socially distance.

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Palm Springs is the latest beneficiary in this outdoor-oriented travel trend. The destination also benefits from pleasant weather during the winter when many Americans are likely to be desperate to — again — flee their homes for warmer climes.

COVID-19 still presents a concern in the desert city. The positivity rate for Riverside County where Palm Springs is located stood at 5.8% on Sept. 22, according to data from the state of California. The rate is considered a “substantial” risk by the state.

“Things are all trending in a positive direction,” Pace said, noting that the county was recently downgraded from the higher “widespread” risk category. California considers a positivity rate of 5% to 8% to represent a substantial COVID-19 risk with the “minimal” category being a rate of 2% or lower.

Related: 9 outdoorsy U.S. resorts perfect for a socially distant getaway

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 landing in Palm Springs. (Photo by Manuela Durson via Shutterstock)
An Alaska Airlines Airbus jet landing in Palm Springs. (Photo by Manuela Durson via Shutterstock)

Can airlines profit in Palm Springs?

“It’s great to see all these new flights added in because it makes the destination that much more accessible,” Atmosphere Research president Henry Harteveldt told TPG. In addition, the new flights will help drive down fares that should stimulate new travel.

The question, of course, is whether airlines will make money from the new flights. Low fares are great for travelers, but they do not always translate into airline profits — especially when the industry is already hemorrhaging cash and asking for additional relief from the federal government.

Profits may not be the end goal though. Earlier in September, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told TPG that the addition of Palm Springs, as well as Miami (MIA), would broaden its attractiveness to travelers during the pandemic and help it generate needed additional revenue with otherwise idle planes.

Related: Southwest Airlines is using the coronavirus to solidify its dominance in California

“Palm Springs, for example, is the largest California city that we do not serve,” Kelly said. “We are the No. 1 airline in California by every measure. So here it’s an opportunity for us to plug it in [to our network].”

While Southwest appears likely to stick around after the pandemic, some of the city’s other new routes may prove fleeting. The historic drop in travel due to COVID-19 has forced airlines to fly routes they would not have attempted prior to the crisis. For example, JetBlue is opening a base in Los Angeles (LAX) and United Airlines is adding nonstop flights to Florida that bypass it hubs.

Most industry watchers view these routes as attempts to capture the few travelers who are flying and generate extra revenue with little guarantee that they will continue after the winter — let alone the pandemic.

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

Alaska, American, Delta and JetBlue's planned new routes from Palm Springs this winter. (Image by Cirium)
Alaska, American, Delta and JetBlue’s planned new routes from Palm Springs this winter. (Image by Cirium)

 

“In a way, this is the best time to test new destinations and new routes,” said Harteveldt. “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.”

For Palm Springs, which routes stick around which may not become apparent until after the winter travel season that ends in March, he added.

That said, the pandemic may prove a turning point for Palm Springs that sees it evolve from a regional destination into more a national holiday destination with nonstop flights to points around the country. Pace said the region is ready for an influx of travelers, with ample hotel and vacation rentals available.

Only time will tell.

Related: Delta adds 5 new routes from LAX, Atlanta as rivals expand in the West

Below is a list of the new routes planned from Palm Springs this winter.

American

  • Philadelphia (PHL): seasonal weekly flight on Saturdays on an Airbus A319 from Dec. 19

Alaska

  • Boise (BOI): seasonal daily flight on an Embraer E175 from Dec. 17 to April 12, 2021
  • Reno (RNO): seasonal flight on Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday on an E175 from Dec. 17 to April 12, 2021
  • San Jose, California (SJC): two daily flights on E175s from Dec. 17

Delta

  • Los Angeles: one daily flight on an E175 from Nov. 20

JetBlue

  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL): seasonal flight on Thursday and Sunday on an Airbus A320 from Dec. 18 to March 25, 2021

Southwest

  • Routes to be determined

Featured image courtesy of the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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