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Feds Will Force U.S. Airlines to Keep Flying Nearly Empty Planes

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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.

Exemptions Denied

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.

empty planes
An American Airlines flight from Phoenix to Minneapolis this week had just 10 passengers on board – less than 8% full.

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.



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.


Bottom Line

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.

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4 Responses

  • Agree that lunacy is good adjective. It would make more sense to keep couple flights per day to large cities as I know many airlines get the mail subsidy so they carry mail. For example, we have at least 4 companies that fly to Chicago + one daily Amtrak from MSP. We could have service with maybe 3 RT daily to each airport? FAA could work with USDOT and post office to secure the minimum number of flights- what a waste of fuel and an enormous cost to airlines. We also don’t need the expensive hub and spoke system in place during this epidemic. Perhaps the question to be asked is: what are the guidelines especially for redundancy? Leisure aircraft such as Sun Country or charters should be needed even less during this pandemic.

    This sounds like something the FAA could do as they get a lot of taxpayer money and this would be a good use of their talents. Maybe it is time to bring back air mail?

    • In theory, yes. But I’m not sure that any airline is in a place to turn down financial help right now.

  • Whose fault? Dictator Trump because he was told and warned about coronavirus by WHO dating back to last December and then he acted like as if nothing happened for almost 3 months until last month he finally woke up. That is why he already hurt many airlines’ businesses in the USA. If he announced about the virus and/or fought against the virus immediately right away last December, maybe the virus could have lowered and many people can fly, but now it already has been too late for that. Yes, he really is very stupid. I hope he will not win re-election again this November because if Biden wins, he would help the USA being fixed into great shapes again just like Obama did after George W. Bush’s presidency was over in January 2017 because he (Bush) really made the USA very messy. Yes, Bush screwed up the economy and many other things like a bogus president Trump did/does again. BIG SIGH! Maybe many people and/or businesses will sue against Trump and his idiot administration if once he steps down as a president and I wanna see Trump and his staff learn their hard lessons.

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