Travel has all but disappeared due to coronavirus. The number of daily travelers in the U.S. has fallen by 96% compared to last year, as under 100,000 people move through airports daily.
And while airlines have cut back on their flying to limit their losses, it hasn't been enough – flights in the U.S. are often just 10% to 20% full at most, according to estimates and figures from airlines – sometimes much less. Far more planes are in the sky than is necessary to shuttle health care workers and other critical travel.
And the U.S. government isn't helping. In fact, it's making the situation worse.
The U.S. Department of Transportation shut down nearly all requests from both Spirit and JetBlue to drop flights to a dozen or more destinations through the summer. Those airlines cited near-zero demand on a handful of flights, but the U.S. government on Thursday issued an order requiring them to continue flying anyway.
It goes back to the CARES Act, the federal stimulus package with a $50 billion bailout for the airlines – and some major strings attached. Among other requirements, airlines seeking financial help are required to continue serving the same airports across the U.S. with at least a minimum amount of flights.
In theory, that's meant to ensure that airlines don't abandon underserved or less-profitable airports after accepting taxpayer money and to make sure no airport loses connectivity altogether. In practice, it will force airlines to continue flying empty planes across the country in order to get financial help.
JetBlue asked for federal permission to halt flights to 12 airports, while Spirit sought to temporarily suspend service to 26. Both airlines asked to halt all flights in and out of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) until at least mid-June.
“Requiring Spirit to continue to operate three flights a week to these cities will rapidly exhaust Spirit’s financial resources and manpower, while adding virtually nothing to those cities access to air transportation at this time,” Spirit said in its request.
JetBlue struck a similar note in its own request, stressing that flights to the locations in question were as little as 5% full. JetBlue even got approval from executives at every airport to temporarily stop flights. And in most cases, letting Spirit and JetBlue off the hook at these airports wouldn't have left those communities without options – other carriers still fly there.
But the Department of Transportation still said no, denying all but two requests: two airports in Puerto Rico that have been closed.
“JetBlue has not persuaded the Department that we must strike a different balance with respect to the remaining covered points in JetBlue’s request,” the department said in a Thursday regulatory filing.
Spirit had already stopped flying to many of the 26 airports. The department on Thursday ordered the airline to restart those flights.
The DOT's approach here is, IMO, counter to the spirit of the Act.
The goal was not that every airline should keep serving every destination. It was that every destination should retain service. I was hopeful the DOT would show discretion with exemptions. That proved unfounded.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) April 16, 2020
And it bodes poorly for the likes of Sun Country, which asked the federal government this week to drop all but four flights out of Minneapolis.
Operating all the flights required by the bailout terms “would require Sun Country to perform flights to/from these communities that were essentially empty, incurring the resulting significant costs and burdens at a time when Sun Country must reduce costs and preserve cash,” Sun Country argued.
Given the government's response to Spirit and JetBlue, the odds that Sun Country will get a reprieve are slim at best.
This is lunacy.
The U.S. government could have taken a big-picture approach, letting some airlines off the hook while protecting essential air service across the board.
But requiring these airlines to continue flights means more empty planes in the sky when alternatives on other airlines exist is counterproductive. It forces airlines to burn more cash (and jetfuel) at a time when carriers desperately need it.
The U.S. government is essentially ordering airlines to continue digging the hole that they're trying to fill.