American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are leading the way with daily flights in the US. Southwest and United Airlines round out the big four US carriers. In fifth place comes Alaska, followed by JetBlue and Hawaiian. While most carriers are operating fewer flights than they were in 2019, some are bucking that trend and flying more departures. However, more departures do not necessarily mean more passengers and revenue. Here’s a look at how much airlines are flying using data from RadarBox.com
When it comes to capacity, American Airlines has had no problems flying extensively and offering as many seats for sale as it can. The data clearly shows how and when American managed its daily flight numbers:
While it may be shocking that American flew more flights per day in March and April 2021 than it did in 2019, it fits within American’s network planning. The airline has consistently focused on flying more capacity than is necessary in a bid to attract as many travelers as possible.
Given how the recovery is turning out nonlinear and demand growth from February to March was relatively quick, American focused on offering more capacity than was needed. Most of that capacity was in the domestic market, though American is flying to most of its international destinations as well. These flight numbers per day are expected to increase as American brings more of its fleet out of storage and into active revenue service.
Delta Air Lines
Delta has consistently flown more flights in 2021 than it did in 2020 and 2019. However, Delta is still flying around a few hundred fewer flights per day than American Airlines. In March and into April, Delta is hovering around offering 3,600-3,700 flights per day.
However, Delta’s flights are not going out full. Aside from Easter weekend, when the airline suffered some operational disruptions, Delta has been blocking middle seats on its planes and limiting the overall number of passengers allowed onboard.
This large capacity lever, which Delta has decided to pull from May 1st onwards, led the carrier to add more flights on higher-demand routes. Throughout the crisis, Delta’s team has focused on adding more flights instead of releasing more seats for sale. This has driven the airline’s flight numbers up without necessarily driving up the number of passengers as fully unblocked flights would.
Southwest is currently the third-largest airline in the US when measured by the number of daily flights. Southwest has consistently been flying fewer flights per day than it was in 2019 and early 2020. While the airline also increased flights in March amid a much-improved revenue and demand environment, it has hugged around offering 3,000 flights per day.
Southwest has typically focused on operating higher-frequency point-to-point routes. Those routes have taken a hit with fewer flight offerings as the carrier manages a reduced demand environment and moved slightly closer to a hub-and-spoke model.
As Southwest focuses on adding new destinations this year, expect its overall flight numbers to increase and the airline to come closer to the 4,000-flights-per-day mark.
Rounding out the big four, United has stayed close to its 2019 daily flight numbers thus far. Minus a cut in flights at the end of February, the airline has focused on flying around 2,300 to 2,400 flights per day.
Structurally speaking, United’s lower flight numbers than its competitors makes a lot of sense. United traditionally has high international exposure, and those flights, which are running, operate only a few times per day at most.
The airline has also lagged in terms of a domestic network compared to its peers, which it is working on rectifying. Additional aircraft, especially the MAX planes it has on order, will help increase the airline’s overall flying. For now, however, it remains in fourth place.
The only US carrier based on the West Coast, Alaska Airlines, beat out its 2019 flight numbers with nearly 1,000 daily flights running through March and into early April.
Alaska has not shied away from announcing new routes nor increasing capacity where it is warranted with big plans for the summer. On March 31st, Alaska officially joined the oneworld alliance and has plans to grow flight schedules to help support connections with oneworld partners and cater to the new customers flying with Alaska.
Where Alaska is based on the West Coast, JetBlue calls the East Coast home. While the debate is still ongoing over which coast is better (although the East Coast certainly has a leg-up on the West Coast), Alaska has firmly beat out JetBlue on the number of daily flights.
JetBlue is currently running around the mid-600s. Not all of that is based around New York and Boston. The airline has also focused on flying out of Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and its newest base in Los Angeles.
JetBlue has brought back capacity slower than other carriers in large part because travel restrictions hampered its largest bases in the New York area and Boston. As New York has lifted quarantine mandates for domestic travelers, the airline is still being cautious with the return of its capacity.
JetBlue has taken a mostly conservative stance since the start of the crisis with its capacity. Shocked by the early drop-off in demand as its New York home became the epicenter of the pandemic in the US, the airline is focused on a disciplined return of capacity over a zealous return to 2019-levels of flying.
JetBlue also flies mostly larger aircraft than its peers. It has no regional feeders like the other big three airlines, nor does it have the large domestic connecting and name presence Southwest has. Its smallest jets are the Embraer E190s which seat 100 passengers. Without excess smaller aircraft it can substitute on some routes, JetBlue has opted to suspend some services and focus on its loads over capacity.
Ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) Spirit Airlines has plans to come back strong this summer. Focused on both bringing back its core network and on expansion, the airline is tracking just under its 2019 daily flight levels.
Spirit is working on bringing old and new aircraft into service. It has accelerated deliveries and is betting its low-cost leisure-oriented positioning will give the airline a boost in the recovery.
Spirit has already resumed hiring and is focused on having the employee headcount to support a robust summer schedule. Watch these flight numbers, which are expected to grow from May onwards as the busy summer season rolls around.
The airline greeting its passengers with a cheery “Aloha!” is Hawaiian Airlines. Calling Honolulu home, Hawaiian had a rough 2020 until October. With Hawaii shut down for leisure tourism, which is the airline’s bread and butter for passengers, for much of the year, the carrier focused on operating a bare minimum network necessary.
Even before the crisis hit, Hawaiian was only flying around 250 flights per day. Now, the airline is operating around half that, but with Hawaii set to get increased attention from passengers this summer who may be shut out from an international beach vacation, the airline has started to increase the number of daily services it provides.
The airline is mostly targeting summer 2020 for capacity increases. With some of its international markets such as New Zealand and Australia still closed for tourism, the airline has redeployed its spare aircraft on new services to Orlando and Austin.
Another chunk of daily departures comes from the airline’s intra-island services. Mostly flown using its Boeing 717 aircraft, these services help keep the island state connected with broader supply chains and passenger services.
What to make of this data
The important thing to note is that daily flights and capacity are two different metrics. With first-quarter results coming out in the coming weeks, a bigger picture on capacity versus daily flights will be available. Even though they have increased the number of flights they fly per day, many airlines are flying those legs with smaller aircraft.
In addition, load factors continue to remain low. Even though airlines are flying all of that capacity, American passenger numbers are still at about 60% of what they were in 2019, meaning plenty of empty seats. Also, not all passengers flying are paying higher fares that would lead airlines to turn a profit at lower loads.
Nevertheless, most airlines are waiting until the summer to ramp up their daily operations. For various reasons, others have started to do so now and have reactivated more jets. Ultimately, the current environment is still weakened, but carriers are already preparing for a summer they hope will beat expectations.
Have you flown recently? Do you have plans to fly this month? What do you make of this data? Let us know in the comments!