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Thanksgiving a bust? Airlines slash November schedules as demand sputters

Oct. 06, 2020
4 min read
American Airlines Airbus A321 and Delta Atlanta
Thanksgiving a bust? Airlines slash November schedules as demand sputters
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There's an old joke in the airline industry that if a carrier can't fill a plane over Thanksgiving, then they are doing something wrong.

That may just be the case at American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines this Thanksgiving.

New numbers from travel data firm OAG paint a harsh picture of the upcoming holiday. Bookings for November at American and United are at roughly a quarter of where they were at this time last year. And reservations at Delta Air Lines are at only 12% of 2019 levels.

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"It looks like the last hope of the year, Thanksgiving, will be memorable this year for all the wrong reasons," wrote John Grant, senior analyst at airline data firm OAG.

The news of weak holiday bookings comes as airlines are now free to cut service at will. Minimum air-service rules attached to federal coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act, funds expired on Sept. 30, freeing airlines to drop destinations. American has already said it will suspend flights to 11 small communities while Delta and JetBlue Airways have indefinitely suspended flights to places like Worcester, Massachusetts (ORH). Executives at Southwest Airlines and United have said their own cuts could come if travel does not continue to rebound.

The service cuts come as more than 40,000 airline workers were furloughed or laid off beginning Oct. 1. American and United let go of the most staff — about 32,400 people between them — following the expiration of CARES Act employment protections. Congress failed to reach an agreement on an extension of federal relief before the deadline.

Related: American, United say flights to small cities are at risk unless Congress extends payroll program

Many U.S. airlines loaded their updated November schedules over the weekend and it was a bloodbath. While cuts were expected as airlines have repeatedly pulled down schedules about a month out since the summer, domestic schedules fell to down more than 38%. That's a big drop from down just 9% a week ago, a full 29-point shift in one fell swoop, according to Cirium schedules data.

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American and United cut schedules the most. American's planned U.S. flying fell by nearly 52 points to down 44% in November compared to 2019. United's planned flying fell nearly 58 points to down 50%, Cirium shows. While not as deep, Southwest slashed its flying by 30 points to down 38%.

Schedule cuts by Delta are likely still coming with domestic flying down just 29% year-over-year in November. The airline has indicated that it will fly less than 70% of its 2019 schedule during the month, though it has not provided specific guidance.

Related: Southwest Airlines could cut cities without additional coronavirus aid

Experts have repeatedly warned of a tough winter travel season for airlines. Historically, the period is dominated by business travelers outside of the holiday periods. This year, however, few corporate travelers are flying while leisure flyers have pulled back as they traditionally do after Labor Day.

This was part of the argument airlines and labor unions made for additional government aid: that the funds would bridge the winter and get them to the next summer season — and hopefully progress on a COVID-19 vaccine.

Unaffiliated trade groups Airlines for America (A4A) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) each anticipate a four-year recovery from the pandemic, or until 2024.

“[The] outlook has actually gotten darker — something I would not have believed possible just a few months ago," IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac told reporters on the coming winter on Sept. 29.

Related: Global air travel unlikely to recover until 2024 as COVID remains ‘issue’ in US, elsewhere

Featured image by Alberto Riva