Spirit Airlines revamps schedule with circle routes so it can receive coronavirus aid

Apr 27, 2020

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Spirit Airlines is circling around serving many of the cities on its map during the coronavirus pandemic in a manner that is more 1980 than 2020.

The South Florida-based discounter will serve at least 16 cities across the U.S. as “circles” in order to comply with the air service requirements of the payroll assistance it received from the federal government, Spirit confirmed and Cirium schedules show. Its request to suspend flights to many of these destinations was denied by the Department of Transportation.

A circle route is one that combines two cities onto one route in a circular fashion, for example from Las Vegas (LAS) to Oakland (OAK) then Sacramento (SMF) before heading back to Las Vegas. They are also known as triangle routes.

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Spirit Airlines circular routings in May 2020. (Image by Cirium)
Spirit Airlines circular routings in May 2020. (Image by Cirium)


Spirit’s circle routes in May include:

  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL) – Raleigh/Durham (RDU) – Charlotte (CLT) – Fort Lauderdale
  • Fort Lauderdale – Plattsburgh (PBG) – Niagara Falls (IAG) – Fort Lauderdale
  • Las Vegas – Oakland – Sacramento – Las Vegas
  • Las Vegas – Seattle (SEA) – Portland, Oregon (PDX) – Las Vegas
  • Orlando (MCO) – Asheville (AVL) – Greensboro (GSO) – Orlando
  • Orlando – Cleveland (CLE) – Columbus (CMH) – Orlando
  • Orlando – Pittsburgh (PIT) – Latrobe, Pennsylvania (LBE) – Orlando
  • Orlando – Richmond (RIC) – Charleston, West Virginia (CRW) – Orlando

Serving cities with circular routings “allows us to keep our guests connected while also complying with the provisions of the CARES Act more efficiently,” Spirit spokesperson Erik Hofmeyer told TPG.

The adaptive routings allow Spirit to maintain air service with the least amount of capacity allowed under the federal government’s aid package, known as the CARES Act. Demand remains near non-existent with the latest airport screening numbers from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) remaining around 5% of where they stood at the same time last year.

Related: JetBlue, Spirit rejected by DOT on nearly all bailout waiver requests

Spirit’s circular routings are the latest way U.S. carriers are adapting to the CARES Act air service requirements. Alaska Airlines consolidated 12 routes into six with airports like Baltimore/Washington (BWI) tagged on to the flight to Pittsburgh (PIT). JetBlue Airways took the tagging concept and raised it up a level with varied one-stop routings to cities like Albuquerque (ABQ) and Bozeman (BZN).

JetBlue's temporary flight routing map for May and June 2020. (Image courtesy of JetBlue Airways)
JetBlue’s temporary flight routing map for May and June 2020. (Image courtesy of JetBlue Airways)


The DOT has granted some air service waivers. Spirit was allowed to suspend service to Aguadilla (BQN) in Puerto Rico where the governor has moved has moved to limit all flights to just the San Juan (SJU) airport. Other waivers have gone to airports where local health authorities are quarantining arriving passengers, as in Hawaii, and to ones that are closed, like in Cedar City, Utah (CDC).

Circle and tag routes are not new. Prior to the development of major hubs in the early 1980s, many airlines served multiple cities on a single route as a tag, circle or even a “milk run” that served several cities along a given route. For example, Eastern Air Lines served Portland and Seattle as a circle from Omaha (OMA) and St. Louis (STL) in 1976, and Western Airlines served five cities enroute from Salt Lake City (SLC) to Great Falls, Montana (GTF) in 1970.

Spirit plans to resume a more normal schedule in the 16 cities that it is serving with either circles or as a tag when travel begins to rebound after the pandemic, said Hofmeyer.

One optimistic sign in Spirit’s May schedule: a lot of the circle-route cities will get their own nonstop flight for Memorial Day Weekend.

Related: Airlines ask DOT to suspend flights to more US airports, small cities fare worst

Editor’s note: Updated to reflect Niagara Falls and Plattsburgh service as a circle and not a tag.

Featured image courtesy of Spirit Airlines.

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