Flights Down 38% For Biggest Airlines With Virus Cutting Travel

Airlines have canceled thousands of flights in recent days as the impacts of Covid-19’s rapid march across the U.S. has dramatically reduced travel.

As of noon Eastern Time Monday, the four major carriers had cut about 5,000 flights from their schedules, or 38% of the total scheduled until then, according to data from the website FlightAware.

American Airlines Group Inc. had cut 1,434 flights or 44% of its flights scheduled through noon.Delta Air Lines Inc. dropped 1,321 or 37%, according to FlightAware. Similar drops were occurring for smaller carriers such asJetBlue Airways Corp. andAlaska Air Group Inc., as well as the regional airlines that fly under contract for the majors.

“This is extraordinary,” said John Hansman, a professor atMassachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the air-traffic system. “The only thing I can think of close to it was the controller strike under Reagan.”

A strike by air-traffic controllers in 1981 prompted President Ronald Reagan to fire more than 11,000 controllers and caused lengthy disruptions to the system.

At least 11 air-traffic facilities operated by theFederal Aviation Administration have been hit with disruptions as a result of employees testing positive for the virus, according to agency data.

While most of the impacts have been relatively minor so far, delays and cancellations have reverberated for days at Las Vegas McCarran International and Chicago Midway. Some controllers at the Las Vegas facility are in isolation after a colleague tested positive last week and Midway is still being cleaned, according to the FAA.

There were more than 900 cancellations at the two airports on Monday, according to FlightAware.

However, the flight reductions are occurring across the aviation system. There were more than 1,000 fewer flights into and out of the largest U.S. airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, according to FlightAware.

Most U.S. carriers have announced plans to reduce their schedules starting in April. But the cuts on Monday suggest they are moving earlier as demand plunges further.

Southwest Airlines Co. announced on Friday it was canceling 1,000 flights a day, or about 25% of its schedule, starting on Sunday. It had earlier announced plans to reduce capacity on April 24.

Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email that the carrier “expects to strategically cancel flights this week where load factors are extremely light out of cost-saving considerations as we continue to manage the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The reduction in its schedule goes beyond a drop in international flights, Durrant said. Customers are being automatically rebooked if flights are canceled, he said.

The flight-tracking website Flightradar24 was showing a dramatic reduction in the number of aircraft aloft over southern Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, a reduction of 2,000 planes or about a 36% drop, said Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for the company.

By comparison, airlines canceled only 1.82% of airline flights in 2019, according to theU.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

With loads falling dramatically as people shelter in place, it makes sense for carriers to trim their schedules, said Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. If only 20% of seats are filled, carriers can’t even cover their costs for a flight unless they are all high-dollar travelers, Mann said.

“Inevitably, whatever you thought you were going to fly based on the demand you saw when you were creating the schedule, it’s much worse,” he said. “You’re constantly fighting this battle of demand being destroyed faster than you can reschedule the airline.”

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