Earlier this week, we wrote about how the US government’s coronavirus relief funding was forcing US carriers to operate inefficient and low-demand routes across the country. We had focused on regional airports in Colorado as an example. Well, as an unintended consequence of continuing service to these small airports, American Airlines now operates the shortest domestic route by a major US carrier.
Empty flights to regional airports
According to the Colorado Sun, empty or near-empty aircraft are regularly landing in small Colorado communities to satisfy federal requirements for COVID-19 relief funding. As a result, the airlines running these services are asking the US Department of Transportation for permission to suspend the routes.
Until exemptions are granted, some airlines are getting creative with their routing in order to preserve cash and get the most out of their operational aircraft. As a result, American Airlines is running a circular route for AA2986. Here’s how it goes:
- Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Vail (EGE)
- Vail to Aspen (ASE)
- Aspen to Montrose (MTJ)
- and finally, Montrose back to Dallas/Fort Worth
As The Points Guy notes, The Vail-Aspen leg (EGE-ASE) is the new shortest flight by a major US carrier at 29 miles. While Alaska Airlines’ “milk run” routes are more interesting, American’s flight 2986 is just as bad in terms of feeling like a train or bus service. Any passenger flying from Vail to Dallas-Fort Worth would have to take-off and land three times! As part of Alaska Airlines’ milk run routes, Petersburg and Wrangell are actually 31 miles apart from each other, which is a strong contender for the shortest domestic route.
The four-stop service known as AA2986 is being operated by a 65-seat Bombardier CRJ700 through June 1st. Its frequency is listed as five-times-a-week, operating from Thursday through Monday.
According to The Points Guy, American Airlines is selling the Vail-Aspen leg for $46 one way on May 21, with a flight time of 35 minutes. Actual flight time is listed on FlightRadar24.com as anywhere between 24 and 29 minutes. Although the straight-line distance between the two airports is just 29 miles, the mountainous terrain of the area means that driving between the two locations is a little longer. Google Maps pegs the journey at 80 minutes to drive 65 miles.
While US carriers have appealed to the US Department of Transporation (DOT) for exemptions, the US DOT hasn’t responded to these requests in the way airlines are hoping.
Last week, it denied a request by American to cut service to the Colorado communities of Eagle, Aspen, and Montrose. It did, however, allow service cuts to Hawaii. Additionally, United Airline’s request to cut service to Gunnison (Colorado) was denied – even though this three-times-weekly service to/from Denver has been averaging a single passenger per flight in recent weeks.
In response to our inquiry, this is what the US DOT had to say:
“DOT has continued to monitor the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 public health emergency on the commercial aviation industry. The Department has granted several exemptions to carriers’ service obligations, recognizing circumstances where it is not reasonable or practicable for carriers to serve all points or all frequencies in their service obligations. The Department will continue to monitor the industry, including for signs of improved passenger volume, as the economy recovers.”
Since then, the Department of Transportation has eased CARES Act flight schedule rules ever so slightly. Airlines are now able to suspend service to up to 11 cities on their maps. However, the department is still ensuring that flights continue to every commercial airport across the country on at least one carrier.
Do you think the US DOT should allow American Airlines to cut service to Vail if there are few passengers going to or from the airport? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.