The absurdity of the government stimulus minimum service requirements continue to cause problems, but Alaska and JetBlue are getting creative in finding ways to comply. With Alaska especially, it shows just how ridiculous this mandate is.
The final order is out, and the rules have been modified slightly. If the airlines want to take advantage of the stimulus grant and/or loan money, they have to meet these minimum service requirements through September 30, 2020. (DOT may extend this, but they’d have to let the airlines know by August 1.)
- All domestic cities must continue to be served
- If an airline flies to multiple airports in a city, it only needs to continue serving one
- A new provision is that seasonal routes only need to be served during the regular season for service (binary winter or summer) which is a good enhancement
- Flights need to operate 1 day, 3 days, or 5 days weekly depending upon a couple factors, and they can operate from any other city in the US
- Airlines can apply for exemptions
This is an improvement from the original proposal, but it still means airlines are going to have to provide far too much service for the demand that’s out there. They get to fight over scraps.
If you look through the final order, you can see all the minimum service requirements, but let’s highlight a couple. Do eight airlines really need to serve Kahului, Maui when all visitors require being quarantined for 14 days for the near future? Does Kalispell, Montana really need service from five airlines? I know it’s less than daily service, but this is still too much.
I expect more airlines will try to get creative, but for now, JetBlue and Alaska are the ones that have really taken things into their own hands.
JetBlue Picks Its Favorite Airports
The rules say that airlines only need to serve one airport per city, so JetBlue is taking that to heart. Here is its plan through June 10:
- Boston – Serve only Boston, suspend Providence
- Los Angeles – Serve only LAX and Long Beach, suspend Burbank and Ontario
- New York – Serve only JFK and Newark, suspend LaGuardia, Stewart, and Westchester
- San Francisco – Serve only SFO, suspend San Jose (Oakland was already permanently abandoned)
- Washington – Serve only National, suspend Baltimore (Dulles was already permanently abandoned)
Ok, so maybe I’m giving JetBlue too much credit here for being creative. This is just taking advantage of the provision in the rule that requires airlines to serve only one airport in each city.
This appears to be the extent of what JetBlue can do, even though it considers other airports to be “co-terminals” that serve the same point. For example, it has to keep serving both Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach as well as Tampa and Sarasota. And in what is probably the most ridiculous requirement, JetBlue has to keep flying to Worcester even though it’s closer to Boston than Providence.
Don’t worry, JetBlue has an answer for that. It was the first to submit its list to the DOT to request exemptions. It wants to end service in all these markets through June 10:
- Dallas/Fort Worth
- Minneapolis/St Paul
- Palm Springs
- Portland (Oregon)
It will be most interesting to see what exemptions are granted, because we really don’t know at this point.
Alaska Brings Milk Runs to the Lower 48
When it comes to actual creativity, Alaska takes the cake. Alaska has decided to go old school and fly the way airlines used to… with stops along the way so it can consolidate destinations into a single route.
Alaska already does plenty of this up in the State of Alaska. You might remember when I flew the milk run a couple years back. Alaska flies several different routes between Anchorage and Seattle that stop in multiple cities along the way. These literally bring milk and other essentials to those communities.
To be fair, this is not what Alaska is doing in the lower 48, but it probably wishes it could carry more cargo since its flights will be empty. Here’s a visual of the plan via the Great Circle Mapper:
Other than the round-robin up in Montana where the airplane goes in a circle, these are all tag flights where they stop in the same city in each direction. All of the tags heading east are operated by mainline airplanes and leave Seattle in the middle of the day. They spend the night at their final destination before turning back around in the morning. The Montana (on a Skywest Embraer 175) and California (on a Horizon Q400) flights all start and end the day in Seattle.
I asked Alaska if these were solely chosen based on geography or if there were other factors, and I was told this:
When looking for tags, we looked for geographic proximity so that a stopover point was not too far out of the way for those continuing. In a demand environment this depressed, it’s hard to say there was much economics factored in but we picked good sized markets where we think there was complimentary demand.
Of course, there are other markets that retain regular nonstop service in the network, so these must have just been the thinnest markets with the least competition that were easy enough to combine.
You can buy tickets on the tag portion alone if you’d like, but then again, you shouldn’t be out there joy-riding right now. Just keep this option in mind if you have essential travel.
Of course, this points out the absurdity of the DOT rule. Is anyone really going to fly Alaska to Houston with a stop in Dallas? No. They should just let United be the one airline to fly the route and then have everyone codeshare.
I’ll be curious to see how airlines like Allegiant and Frontier handle this mandate with their highly-variable schedules. Spirit has already requested exemptions from 26 cities, including big ones like San Francisco and New York. The rule is friendlier in its final state than it was previously, but it’s still not something that works well for any airline’s network strategy. It’s also not something travelers need.