United trims 2 Vail routes, boosts other outdoor destinations in latest pandemic adjustment

Mar 2, 2021

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Major U.S. airlines have been busy boosting flights to destinations with plenty of built-in social distancing to capture leisure traffic traveling during the pandemic.

Consider Kalispell, Montana; Eureka, California or Idaho Falls, Idaho. All three cities are getting brand-new airline service, thanks to their proximity to national parks and other outdoor activities.

However, not all outdoor-friendly destinations are created equally.

United Airlines is dropping two routes to Vail/Eagle (EGE) from its timetable. The carrier was originally planning to fly twice-weekly EGE service this summer from both Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Houston Intercontinental (IAH).

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Over the weekend, United pulled the ORD and IAH flights, leaving Vail connected by twice-daily Denver service.

Cutting flights to Vail during the summer season might come as a surprise to some. The warmer months are typically quite popular with travelers seeking hiking trails, white water rafting, fly fishing and more.

United’s move, however, suggests that there are limits to where pandemic-weary travelers are looking to vacation. Vail’s appeal as a mid-pandemic escape is seemingly much stronger in the winter.

Thanks to its world-class skiing, United blanketed Vail with nonstop service from five of its hubs during the winter season. In fact, Cirium schedules show that the carrier plans just 4% fewer flights to Vail during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic highs of 2019. (For context, United’s networkwide flight count has dropped by 45%.)

With United’s latest cut, Vail still seems to primarily be a ski destination, despite an abundance of summertime activities that would theoretically fit the bill for a safer, mid-pandemic escape.

Related: The best Colorado ski towns to visit

Other leisure-oriented destinations are faring better.

Florida doesn’t seem to have limits. United keeps boosting service to the Sunshine State from airports across its domestic network, with a notable recent expansion from Denver. Despite the state’s hot and humid summers, flyers are still prepared to soak up some Vitamin D in June and July.

United’s competitors are also feeling the (Florida) heat. Southwest recently unveiled a sweeping route expansion, largely focused at airports like Sarasota/Bradenton (SRQ), Destin/Fort Walton Beach (VPS), Fort Myers (RSW) and Miami (MIA). American and JetBlue are also doubling down on the beach traffic.

Just a few hundred miles north of Florida is Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. This leisure spot known for its beaches and golf courses has also proven quite popular during the pandemic. Over the weekend, United added daily service to the island from its ORD hub from May through early September.

Related: Southwest Airlines add 6 routes to 2 brand-new destinations, including Bozeman

Airports near national parks are also seeing a spike in flights. JetBlue will soon launch a new seasonal nonstop from its New York-JFK hub to Kalispell (FCA) near Glacier National Park.

Another Montana city — Bozeman (BZN) — has seen a dramatic increase in service thanks in part to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park. Southwest will launch its first-ever service to the city later this year. American Airlines is also adding a new seasonal Phoenix (PHX) to BZN service.

All told, Bozeman will see over 1,100 more flights in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same time period in 2019, per Cirium timetables. This 28% increase from pre-pandemic highs shows how quickly airlines are responding to changing demand patterns.

For the airlines making network adjustments, it’s not just about swapping business-focused routes for those catering to leisure travelers – but also about finding the busiest outdoor-friendly markets.

Featured photo courtesy of United Airlines 




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