American Airlines will drop flights to 15 smaller US cities in October when a federal requirement to serve those communities ends.
The airline blamed low demand during the coronavirus pandemic, which has triggered a massive slump in air travel and huge losses for the carriers. Airlines and their labor unions are seeking billions in new taxpayer relief.
American said its schedule covering October 7 through November 3 will drop flights to cities including Sioux City, Iowa; New Haven, Connecticut; and Springfield, Illinois.
‘This is the first step as American continues to evaluate its network and plans for additional schedule changes in the coming weeks,’ the airline said in a prepared statement.
More than half of the cities that American is dropping have no other airline service. It will be a major blow to Tweed-New Haven Airport, but the airport’s executive director, Sean Scanlon, held out hope that the loss will be temporary.
‘I’m confident that we will see other carriers here once the industry bounces back from COVID regardless of what happens with American,’ Scanlon said.
A massive pandemic-relief measure approved in March set aside up to $50billion in cash and low-interest loans for the nation’s passenger airlines.
American was the largest recipient – $10.7billion if a pending loan wins final approval from the US Treasury Department.
In return for taxpayer dollars, airlines were barred from furloughing workers and were required, in most cases, to continue serving destinations they had before the pandemic. Both of those conditions expire September 30.
Passenger airlines and their labor unions are lobbying for an additional $25billion to keep paying workers and avoid furloughs through next March. Cargo airlines and contractors would get $7billion.
The push by airlines and labor has received significant support in Washington. A majority of the Democratic-controlled House endorsed the additional money, so did 16 Senate Republicans.
President Donald Trump spoke favorably about helping the airlines when asked about the proposal.
However, the provision is wrapped up in discussions over a larger virus-relief package that would include extended unemployment benefits and, Democrats hope, aid to cities and state governments.
The fate of that measure is unclear after negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House broke down more than a week ago.
An American Airlines executive cited the stalemate in Washington for the airline’s decision to cut service to some destinations.
‘We have been holding off, hoping that we would come to some sort of agreement that would extend (the payroll money) and would extend the service requirement. That broader negotiation does seem to be stalled, and this is an unfortunate casualty of that,’ said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity to explain private discussions about the decision.
Without more federal money, airlines may lay off or furlough tens of thousands of workers as early as October 1.
American has warned 25,000 workers they could lose their jobs. United Airlines has sent notices covering 36,000 employees.
The final number of cuts will depend on how many employees take offers of buyouts, early retirement or long-term leave.
The requirement to preserve most routes that airlines flew before the pandemic has been unpopular with airlines because many of them carry few passengers.
The Transportation Department agreed to let airlines drop a few cities if other carriers continued flying there, but many other requests were denied.
American Airlines lost more than $2billion in its most recent quarter.
Other airlines declined to comment on their plans.
Industry analysts believe American did not simply ax cities with the fewest flights or seats. The airline likely considered other factors, such as competition and important customers, they said.
‘It’s a network planner’s nightmare to pull out of a city,’ said Jim Ogden, a product director at aviation data firm Cirium and a former network planner for American. ‘When you close down a city, you’re cutting those customers off to your entire network.’
American could continue to serve the smaller cities in a limited capacity, through flights at nearby airports or by selling tickets to flights operated there by another carrier, a practice called code-sharing.
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines announced on Thursday that it will continue blocking middle seats through at least January 6, covering the key holiday season, but will raise the cap on the number of passengers on its flights in October.
Delta had previously said it would block middle seats and limit overall seating capacity at 60 per cent on each flight through September.
But during the month of October, Delta will start selling up to 75 per cent of seats in the main cabin. It will review the policy again before October 31.
Among other large US carriers, Southwest Airlines is blocking middle seats through October, while American Airlines and United Airlines have all of their seats up for sale but are letting passengers know ahead of time if their flights will be full.
Overall travel demand remains depressed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Atlanta-based Delta said it is also extending a waiver on change fees for new flights purchased through September 30.