Airlines being supported financially through the United States CARES Act are required to maintain ‘reasonable and practicable’ service to many communities across the country. While this sounds great in theory, in practice this has resulted in routinely empty flights. As a result, carriers are requesting permission to suspend these services. Unfortunately, many of these requests are being denied.
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.
The CARES Act requires that airlines retain a minimum level of service (at least once per week) to airports they served the week of February 29, 2020, or the week of August 4, 2019 (airlines can choose, depending on seasonal scheduling). However, this can still be a challenge for airlines that operate during a specific seasonal period – especially to resort destinations.
Airlines asking for exemptions include all three major carriers: United Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Air Lines. Exemption requests have been submitted for dozens of regional Colorado airports, including Eagle, Aspen, Gunnison, and Montrose.
This is what Delta had to say in its April 30th exemption request,
“Under any ordinary meaning of the term, it would not be ‘reasonable’ to require any carrier to place its airport staff and flight crews at risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus solely for the purpose of operating flights for which there is little or no actual demand, if the carrier can offer the few passengers in the affected community who do need to fly a reasonably convenient alternative from another airport that is just a 60-minute drive away.”
US DOT denying requests
Unfortunately, the US DOT isn’t responding to these exemption 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 was denied – even though this three-times-weekly service to/from Denver has been averaging a single passenger per flight in recent weeks.
Simple Flying reached out to the US DOT in hopes of getting a response to the situation in Colorado. At the time of publication, we have yet to receive a response, but we will update this article if anything is received.
Community support for airlines
Somewhat surprisingly, communities seem to be in support of airlines’ pursuit of service exemptions. Many have health orders with travel restrictions that discourage the arrival of outsiders.
Another reason for supporting airlines is that some of these resort towns have an unusual arrangement with airlines. These agreements provide airlines with minimum revenue guarantees. Therefore, if airlines continue service to these destinations, the towns would be obligated to make cash payments to the airlines, despite no actual tourism revenue being generated. Colorado communities that do this include Vail, Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs, and Telluride.
Therefore, there are many groups that support service cuts that leave the bare minimum of connection to communities. Matt Skinner, the CEO, Colorado Flights Alliance commented,
“With the airline network such an integral part of our economy, our longtime view is to keep a baseline network operating…Even if it’s lightly used, it’s a better play for the long term than trying to return from zero once travel opens up again.”
We’ll have to wait and see what the US DOT has to say in response to the situation and if it can be convinced that service cuts are better for now.
What do you think? Should these near-empty regional services continue to run? Or should the US DOT allow them to be cut for now? Let us know in the comments.