May saw the fewest US airline flights in 26 years

Aug 21, 2020

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May was a tough month for airlines. Fresh off the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. carriers slashed schedules — some cutting 90% of their flights from the same period in 2019.

Now the numbers are in and they are as bad as expected. U.S. airlines flew just 180,151 flights, the fewest on record since February 1994, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data.

That’s right: February 1994. Bill Clinton was president; the Winter Olympics where Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan skated for gold took place in Lillehammer, Norway; and then-new regional carrier Qatar Airways was less than a month old.

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And even in 1994, carriers flew more than double what they did this May, though 1994 is the year the agency officially began tallying the numbers.

May spelled a sharp reversal of fortune for the industry. Airlines were flying high prior to the pandemic during what some are calling a now-past modern Golden Age of air travel. More than 7.9 million flights were flown, carrying a record 811 million travelers aboard U.S. domestic flights in 2019, according to BTS data.

That all came to a screeching halt in March after it became clear COVID-19 was not contained in China. While airlines recognize April as the low point for flyers, it took them more than a month to reduce their schedules in sync with the number of travelers. For example, Southwest Airlines began April flying more than half of its schedule — but with fewer than 10% of seats filled. That was rectified with deeper cuts over the month.

Thus U.S. carriers operated 194,390 flights in April, 7% more than in May, BTS data shows.

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

While flights plummeted, consumer complaints skyrocketed in May. BTS reports a whopping 1,591% jump in complaints to 21,914 that month compared to a year earlier. The vast majority — 20,915 — were regarding ticket refunds.

Flight numbers should begin climbing in June. Every airline had begun adding back flights for what appeared as a nascent recovery, with some like Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines even launching new routes. That recovery, however, had stalled by July as COVID-19 infections surged again across the U.S.

U.S. domestic flights are scheduled to rise to nearly 435,000 in August, according to Cirium data. Airlines have begun to pull back flights in September, with just over 387,000 scheduled. This is in preparation for what J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker says could be an “autumn of discontent.”

Related: Airlines may face a tough fall after that summer uptick

Featured image courtesy of Pittsburgh International Airport.

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