In April of this year, United and United Express were planning to operate 151,861 flights on 1,761 directional routes. (That means both Los Angeles to Newark and Newark to Los Angeles are included separately.) Thanks to this coronavirus, about 10,000 of those will no longer operate, a roughly 7 percent cut systemwide. I’ve seen many articles looking at the topline number of available seat miles (ASMs) being cut, but what is the real impact in human terms?
I used Diio by Cirium schedule data to compare April 2020 schedules as loaded last week compared to after this weekend’s big schedule change was loaded. My focus is on the number of flights, as opposed to ASMs.
In this week-over-week change, a mere eight routes saw an increase, but that was for a total of 28 flights the entire month. That barely counts. On the flip side, 408 routes lost 10,546 flights. That’s more than 175 flights every day that will just disappear.
If you heard that United was cutting capacity 20 percent internationally and 10 percent domestically, that may be true but it was probably judging by ASMs and it may have included previous China cuts. I haven’t tried to reconcile the numbers.
So, how does this break out by region? Glad you asked.
The steepest drop was in Micronesia, and that isn’t entirely surprising. After all, that is oriented largely toward Asia travel. But also keep in mind that while the percentage drop is steep, the actual numbers are small. Asia, however, is not small. And Asia’s actual percentage of decline is larger if you go back further and include all the China cuts that already took place.
At the other end of the spectrum sits the regions that are least impacted by the virus so far, South America and Oceania. They are also heavy on leisure or visiting family and not as heavy on business. That helps here, because business travel demand has seen the biggest impact in this downturn so far.
US and Canada flights are down a lot, and that may not seem like it should be the case. The virus hasn’t been found much in the US yet. (And I say found knowing that it’s just our government’s ineptitude at testing that is probably keeping the numbers low.) You would think domestic travel would be a nice alternative to those fleeing international travel, but the network effect is strong here.
International travel is down a great deal, and many of those travelers are connecting domestically within the US. That drops domestic demand. Add in paranoia both from travelers but, more importantly, from companies that are slashing travel, and domestic takes a big hit in multiple ways.
Now, let’s go a step deeper and look at which countries have seen the biggest drops.
There is obviously a big red flag here. How is China not on the board? Remember, China service was canceled long ago. So you can mark that down as a 100 percent decrease that happened before this latest round of cuts. The Italy capacity massacre (buh bye Milan, though Rome remains) has now infected Switzerland as well. Then again, United had really built up Zurich this year, so it’s mostly just a reversal. Japan is no surprise, but Honduras and Panama? Panama loses two flighs a day and Honduras one. That just happens to be a high percentage cut.
As I mentioned earlier, in terms of actual numbers, domestic flying is where the biggest cuts are. Here you can see domestic US percentage cuts by hub origin.
This is exactly what you’d expect. The international gateways see the steepest cuts since they have fewer international flights to feed while the mid-continent hubs remain stronger. Houston has both the advantage of being mid-continent and being a gateway to Latin America which hasn’t seen a big impact.
But what does this really look like in practice? Let’s dive into San Francisco to see how that was affected. I’ll look at this differently than in the previous charts. In this chart, you’ll see the daily decrease in San Francisco-originating flights by destination.
Both Ft Lauderdale and Northwest Arkansas saw service canceled completely. Meanwhile, the rest just saw a culling of frequencies throughout the day. I should note that I didn’t look at aircraft changes so the impact on number of seats per market could vary.
United has just taken its network and scaled it down with few exceptions in the bright spots of the world. This is a wide-ranging move that should help the airline’s bottom line right now.