United Airlines suspends 13 routes amid coronavirus response

Mar 9, 2020

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United Airlines grabbed headlines last week when it became the first U.S. airline to plan sweeping cuts to both its international and domestic schedules because of a drop in new bookings amid fears of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The Chicago-based carrier will suspend service on 13 more routes and reduce schedules on nearly 170 more in April due to the virus-related drop in demand, according to Cirium schedule data and confirmed by United. The suspensions are in addition to the routes to China, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan and South Korea that were already halted.

The reductions, including a 20% cut to international schedules and a 10% cut to U.S. flights in April, were first unveiled in a letter to staff on March 4. However, the network impact of the cuts have only become clear following United’s weekly schedule update over the weekend.

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The Star Alliance carrier will suspend the following routes in April:

  • Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Eugene (EUG); Jackson, Mississippi (JAN); Wilmington, North Carolina (ILM); and Zurich (ZRH)
  • Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH) to Akron/Canton, Ohio (CAK); Edmonton (YEG); Reno (RNO); and Vancouver (YVR)
  • Newark Liberty (EWR) to Salt Lake City (SLC)
  • San Francisco (SFO) to Fayetteville/Northwest Arkansas (XNA); Fort Lauderdale (FLL); and New Orleans (MSY)
  • Washington Dulles (IAD) to Geneva (GVA)

The above route suspensions do not include ones previously disclosed.

All of the domestic cities where United is suspending a route are also served by the carrier from another one of its hubs. Or, as United CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby put it in the staff letter, suspended markets are ones with “alternative travel options via other United hubs.”

In addition, United will not offer the eight round-trip flights it had planned to fly between Newark and Palm Springs (PSP) during April, spokesman Jonathan Guerin told TPG. The move was made due to low demand.

Related: United slashes schedules by up to 20% amid coronavirus slowdown

The markets where United is reducing its schedule are broad. A plurality of routes — 43% in total — touch the 30 airports that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration defines as “large hubs,” like Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) or Seattle-Tacoma (SEA). The reductions in these cities should minimize the impact on travelers as most routes will continue to have multiple daily flights.

Notably, no flight reductions were loaded for either New York LaGuardia (LGA) or Washington Reagan National (DCA) airports. Both facilities are slot-controlled with rules in place that requires an airline to operate up to 80% of its slots at any given time or risk forfeiting them.

Small airports, like Akron/Canton and Fresno (FAT), are the second-largest block hit by United’s schedule reductions. Nearly 36% of the routes where the airline will reduce frequencies are to these airports, with impacted facilities spread across the U.S.

Related: US airline execs warn coronavirus impact ‘could be worse than 9/11’ downturn

And medium-sized airports, like Austin (AUS) and Nashville (BNA), will see the fewest schedule reductions. Only about 21% of the routes United will fly less in April touch these destinations.

“All of our schedule reductions are, importantly, being implemented in a way that minimizes the impact on our employees and our operation,” said Munoz and Kirby in their joint letter.

United is allowing travelers who book flights between March 3 and March 31 the freedom to change flights without change fees for up to 12 months. In addition, if a flight is changed by more than two hours passengers can change it for free or cancel it for a voucher of the full value.

Related: Coronavirus-related flight waivers and changes

To date, JetBlue Airways and United are the only U.S. carriers to announce domestic capacity cuts in response to a drop in bookings amid fears of COVID-19. Both Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines have warned that they could reduce capacity but have yet to take action, with the former launching a fare sale to drive bookings.

Most Wall Street analysts believe travel demand will demonstrate a “V-shaped recovery,” or a slowdown with a deep trough but a rapid recovery.

Featured image by Edward Russell/TPG.

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