Grounded: Some cities lost more than half their flights amid COVID-19

New York City and Houston airports among largest cities with steepest cuts, according to InvestigateTV analysis of federal data
Published: Mar. 29, 2021 at 4:05 PM CDT
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(InvestigateTV) - In the six months following the first coronavirus lockdowns in the United States, travel demand fell to all-time lows, according to travel insiders. Last month, the International Air Transport Association declared 2020 to be the worst year in history for air travel demand.

Subsequently, the travel industry contracted as hotels shuttered, businesses furloughed employees and airlines cut flights.

“It’s been a total domino effect,” said Michael Gula, Executive Director of the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina. “Parking revenues are down, concession revenues are down.”

According to federal data, flights out of Columbia Metropolitan Airport were down 47.71% from April-September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 . Most airports nationwide experienced a reduction in departures, and the average decrease in service for these airports was over 37%.

“It’s all the airports across the nation. We’re all experiencing the same difficult situation that we’re in, and we’re all learning how to deal with it,” Gula said. " It’s the first time that any of us have been through something like this.”

Use the tool below to view changes in flight departures by city .

Customer frustration

After cancelling flights due to the pandemic, many airlines compensated travelers with vouchers rather than issue refunds.

Bob Cohen and his wife said they were supposed to fly in May 2020 from Trenton Mercer Airport in New Jersey to Tampa, Florida. They’d booked the flight in February 2020.

“We didn’t plan on a pandemic happening and because of this pandemic, we found out two weeks before the flight was to take place that it was going to be cancelled,” Cohen said.

Strapped for cash, Cohen wanted a refund and said he requested one from the airline. The request was denied, but Cohen said he eventually received a voucher. The terms of the voucher required a new booking within 90 days.

Cohen said he booked a September flight to South Carolina to visit family. The airline cancelled that flight, as well, citing COVID-19.

Cohen eventually made it down to South Carolina-after an 11-and-a-half-hour drive.

“I feel as though I’ve gone through a lot of personal frustration,” Cohen said.

InvestigateTV found numerous people who took to social media to voice their concerns about flight cuts.

Airlines gave mixed responses to these complaints, but the responses generally involved some type of voucher or flight rescheduling.

For example, one woman shared her experience on Twitter. She said in December 2020, one airline cancelled her nonstop flight from New Orleans to Orlando and “effectively took 2 days from a 5-day trip.”

When airline representatives pointed publicly to the terms and conditions agreed prior to the purchase of the ticket, the woman replied, “I call bull [expletive].”

Examples like hers can be found all over social media in the wake of travel restrictions and coronavirus lockdowns. Travel plans created well in advance could change at any time; nonstop flights could be cut, sometimes with little notice.

Alejandro Ludert planned ahead by three months to move permanently from San Francisco to Hawaii with his wife and pets. Ludert said he booked the flight with Alaska Airlines.

The move involved “a significant amount of planning and coordination.”

Ludert said, “We booked that specific flight because we needed to ensure arrival in [Honolulu, Hawaii] with enough time to clear the pets through the rabies screening.”

According to Ludert, the customer service phone line was unhelpful. However, within two hours of posting his complaint on Twitter, he followed up with a post which thanked Alaska Airlines representatives for “helping us navigate out of this mess.”

Not every traveler fared the same as Ludert, however. New York resident Debra Kirschner and her husband booked a flight to Italy in December 2019 and were scheduled to arrive in mid-March 2020.

After coronavirus lockdowns made the trip impossible, the couple said they had to resort to an attorney to secure a refund from their international airline.

Pandemic prompts massive service reductions, government helps airlines/airports stay afloat

InvestigateTV analyzed more than 800,000 flight records from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

14 states lost over half of their flights. New York lost the most compared to 2019.

Looking at cities, of the ten major travel hubs by passenger traffic in 2019, flights to New York City and Washington, D.C. experienced the most cutbacks.

As airlines and airports contended with global travel restrictions, lockdowns and businesses instituting no-travel policies, the government stepped in to help bridge massive budget issues.

The airline industry won some of the largest awards in the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) signed into law by President Donald Trump on Mar. 27, 2020.

United Airlines cut 67% of its domestic U.S flights from April to September 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year. It received $5 billion from the Treasury Department through the Payroll Support Program. In January 2021, United planned to fly around 47% of its overall schedule compared to January 2019.

“Throughout the pandemic, United has nimbly reshaped our schedule by matching capacity with demand. We continue to see a significant impact in demand for air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic and although we have been able to maintain moderate growth each month since the beginning of the pandemic, the recent spike in COVID-19 cases has caused a slight reduction in bookings,” a United spokesperson said in a statement provided in January.

According to InvestigateTV’s analysis of 2020 flights compared to the previous year, JetBlue flew 60% fewer domestic flights. Hawaiian Airlines saw a reduction in domestic flights of over 33%, Delta reduced their flights by 27% and Alaska Airlines cut flights by over 60% compared to the previous year.

As their numbers dropped, the four airlines received a total of more than $5.6 billion in direct payments through the CARES Act to stay afloat.

JetBlue, Hawaiian, Delta and Alaska Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

In an emailed statement to InvestigateTV, a Frontier airlines spokesperson said: “We have been gradually adding back flights in 2021 and are operating significantly more now than we were during earlier phases of the pandemic.”

Charlie Leocha is the President of Traveler’s United, the largest travel advocacy group in Washington, DC. Leocha reviewed InvestigateTV’s analysis and even after considering some of the larger cuts in Houston and New York City he thinks that U.S. domestic flyers are still receiving “pretty good coverage.”

“So, number one, everybody’s not really cutting back based upon just because they want to, but they’re cutting back because the DOT [Department of Transportation] has mandated that some places be cut back. And the other thing the DOT did was it gave areas which were located near three or four airports the ability to only fly to one of those airports,” Leocha said.

During the interview, Leocha used Houston to illustrate this point. He explained that Houston has “two sets of airports” that compete with one another.

“If you look at Hobby [William P. Hobby Airport], it’s basically 100% made up of Southwest [flights], so when Southwest decides that it’s going to cut back its flights, it cuts Houston back as much as it can and it still goes out to other areas with other connections that carry on their flights,” Leocha said.

Regional, small airlines face some of the largest percentage drops in flights

Regional and specialty airlines proportionally had the largest cutbacks once lockdowns from COVID-19 were fully in swing. For example, Grand Canyon Airlines – a family-owned company providing aerial tours of the Grand Canyon – performed 86% fewer flights than the year before.

Grand Canyon Airlines received a $1.65 million Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small Business Administration. The airline did not respond to requests for comment.

When will service return?

InvestigateTV reached out to nearly a dozen airports because of the extent of their 2020 flight reductions when compared to other airports. When asked about the cutbacks and when service would return, the airports typically referred to the airlines.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority in Tennessee explained that they anticipate flight offerings to fluctuate and changes in service to continue.

While service from Knoxville to cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C have experienced “flight reductions or potentially temporary service cancellations” new seasonal flights are taking passengers to Austin, Boston, Houston and more.

Richmond International Airport (RIC) lost over 60% of its domestic flights in total, from April to September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. For flights to New York City and Houston, the reduction was over 95% and nearly 98% respectively.

“Demand is certainly part of the story. It tends to drop off as destinations become riskier or more restricted by stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders, closure of attractions, curfews, and mandatory quarantines,” said Richmond airport spokesperson Troy Bell. “In terms of supply, with domestic demand at a low point, airlines have consolidated operations to conserve cash.”

The more than 3 million travelers entering and leaving Virginia through Richmond International Airport can expect service to JFK International in New York to return “tentatively” in April or May, Bell said. Those bound for New York can still travel “on a limited basis” through LaGuardia and Newark from Richmond.

“Houston had limited service over the December-January holiday period, and we hope to be re-connected to Texas’ Gulf Coast/Space City with daily flights soon,” Bell said.

Other disruptions

As the pandemic continued, some airports also contended with other projects.

Cheyenne Regional Airport in Wyoming experienced a 97.43% drop in flights in 2020 compared to 2019 – but not just because of the coronavirus.

Nathan Banton, the airport’s deputy director of aviation, pointed to “a pause in air service that needed to occur over the summer to facilitate pavement repairs on the runway” in an emailed statement

After the runway improvements, the airport began providing new flights to Denver though United Airlines.

“Since this new route has begun, demand has been on par with air travel across the United States. However, shutting down air service completely for as long as we did creat a steeper drop in passenger numbers and flights relative to other airports. Some of this drop would have occurred for us even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, due to planned runway work,” Banton said.

Looking forward, the air travel industry appears to be rebounding. On March 12, the Transportation Security Administration reported its highest day for passenger travel since the pandemic began.

A United Airlines spokesperson said in an email, “United does not expect the recovery to follow a linear path, however, recent positive results in vaccine development and efficacy show an encouraging line of sight to the other side of the pandemic.”

“I think things can only go up from here. Each week we’re seeing more traffic through and so are all our other competitors throughout the state,” said Gula, the airport official from Columbia, South Carolina.

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