With planes flying empty, government allows airlines to drop more cities

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Like to spread out in Spirit Airlines’ Big Front Seat? Travelers should find lots of them empty and available — for a fee, mind you — on the budget carrier’s flights this month. On some of Spirit’s routes, like those originating in Asheville, for example, an average of just six people are booked on each flight.

At Spirit and most other U.S. airlines, empty planes are flying across the nation everyday due to minimum flight schedule requirements in the federal government’s coronavirus aid package, known as the CARES Act. After weeks of complaints by airlines who took funds, including multiple official requests for relief, the Department of Transportation is finally easing up, if just a little, on the rules.

“We shouldn’t be flying airplanes that are empty,” trade group Airlines for America (A4A) president and CEO Nicholas Calio told U.S. senators at a hearing on May 6. The government has now heeded his call.

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The DOT is allowing carriers to suspend flights to 5% of the U.S. destinations on their maps, or up to 11 cities at the largest carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. The move is aimed at providing some additional financial relief to airlines that are losing millions of dollars a day with little hope that travelers will return in significant numbers for the foreseeable future.

No city will lose air service under the DOT’s new guidance. The regulator will ultimately have to approve every airline’s suspension requests. In doing so, the department said it will guarantee that planes will continue landing at every airport that had flights on March 1.

The relief comes even as passenger numbers begin to tick up. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has screened more than 200,000 people on three days since May 8, marking an increase from a low in mid-April. Still, that’s less than 10% of the number of screenings at this time last year. The data includes some airline and airport staff as well.

More:Why I always board last, no matter where I’m sitting on the plane

The uptick has resulted in some fuller-than-expected flights. For example, a recent full United flight raised social distancing concerns among travelers. While a few flights are operating full, the vast majority are empty, with the latest A4A data showing an average of just 23 passengers on U.S. flights during the week ending May 5.

Most airlines have already applied for air service exemptions from the DOT. The regulator has approved some. For example, it OK’d JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines to suspend service to other carriers’ hubs, but rejected others, like United’s request to suspend service to some smaller mountain communities in Colorado.

Airlines can also consolidate service to one airport in large metropolitan areas with multiple airports. Delta has used this exception to suspend flights to 10 airports across the U.S. until at least September.

Related: Airlines plead for relief from flying requirements for COVID aid

The new relief will not replace the DOT’s previous exemptions or exceptions. Rather, the process appears a response to the industry’s call to “rationalize” air service to meet the current market conditions.

“The relief described below will allow carriers to reduce their service obligations, thereby reducing carriers’ financial burden and providing flexibility to manage operations and staffing across their networks,” the regulator said Tuesday.

The DOT expects all carriers receiving CARES Act funds to avail themselves of the new relief. This may even include Southwest Airlines, which stands apart from its peers as the only major U.S. carrier that — so far — has not suspended or asked to suspend service to any airports on its map.

Related: US will let JetBlue and Spirit suspend service to 16 hub airports

“[We’ve] restructured service across our network while maintaining service to all of our domestic cities, including five Hawaii markets, by the way,” Thomas Nealon, president of Dallas-based Southwest, said during the airline’s first quarter earnings call on April 28. The airline has slashed its schedule by up to 70% in May and 50% in June.

Airlines must apply for the new exemptions by May 18. The regulator aims to approve them “expeditiously” — something that may actually be likely considering its quick turnaround of CARES Act air service waiver requests so far.

Carriers are encouraged to rank their suspension requests and provide alternate choices. This will ensures that each airline can get the maximum relief available to it, while guaranteeing flights continue to all cities across the U.S.

Related: Labor groups slam Treasury for ‘playing games’ with airline bailout terms

Featured image courtesy American Airlines.

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