Some Airports Feel More May Pain Than Others, LAX Included

LAX - Los Angeles

I’ve written about airline schedule cuts multiple times lately, and many of you asked for a deep dive looking at exactly how Los Angeles has fared. I’m going to get to that in a moment, but once I snuggled up with Diio by Cirium data last weekend, I couldn’t just stop at one airport.

Below, you’ll see a comparison of several US airports showing how much things have changed this May versus last. The dark bar is the percent decrease in destinations served while the light bar is the percent decrease in departures.

Data via Diio by Cirum current as of 4/30/2020

Obviously, every single one of these is negative, but some are more negative than others. On the more extreme end, you see Newark and Washington/National, both of which were decimated by United and American pulling back respectively. They not only saw the most destinations cut, but they saw the most departures cut as well.

At the other end, you can see that American hasn’t been trimming all that much in Dallas and Charlotte. Seattle is less surprising since Alaska has only one real hub from which to serve its destinations, and Delta probably doesn’t want to fall too far behind. I find it interesting that Phoenix and Las Vegas saw very hefty flight cuts but didn’t lose as many destinations. You’d think Orlando would behave similarly, but it lost a whole lot more on the destination side.

In general — if you remove the Southwest effect — it’s the hubs in the middle that lost the least, and that’s because they are more domestic-focused and the CARES Act means airlines need those airports to connect a lot of cities. Meanwhile, the coastal cities are hit harder due to the bigger loss of international traffic and lack of domestic connectivity.

But wait, these numbers aren’t entirely accurate. That’s not Diio’s fault. Diio only loads once a week, so anything in the last week won’t show up. I did this before the weekend, so I missed an update that would have included Lufthansa’s cuts, for example. In addition, some airlines leave flights filed but then just zero out the inventory, usually meaning they aren’t operating. Diio can’t pick that up.

It would be painful to manually go through every route to see what’s actually operating, so I picked one airport to use as an example. Since so many of you asked about Los Angeles, that’s where I went.

Last May, LAX has about 865 daily departures serving 174 destinations. This May, according to Diio, it’s down to just over 200 daily departures serving 92 destinations, or nearly half as many. But after getting through the manual process, it dropped to something closer to 185 daily departures serving only 73 destinations. That means the airport has lost 60 percent of its destinations, not the 50 percent you see in the top chart.

This is when I turned to the Great Circle Mapper to show what stays and what goes. Keep in mind, May just started. There’s still time for more of these to be cut before the month is out.

Let’s start by looking out over to Asia. I included Alaska on this map simply because it fits best visually.

LAX canceled (red) and retained (green) North Pacific map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

The bulk of the canceled flights here are into China. And just look at how many Chinese cities were actually served previously. I should note that I’m not entirely sure about some of these Chinese routes. Flights appear to be operating but they aren’t bookable because of some hoops that must be gone through first. So, take that for what it’s worth. For everything else outside China save Osaka, LAX remains an important lifeline into the US from a passenger and cargo perspective. There are fewer flights in these markets, but the routes remain.

Looking down into Oceania (which includes Hawai’i), you see there’s not much left beyond the Hawaiian islands.

LAX canceled (red) and retained (green) Oceania map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Auckland retains service because, again, LAX is the lifeline to the rest of the world. For the rest, they aren’t concerned about that. Heck, some of these islands probably specifically DON’T want a lifeline to the rest of the world.

Now let’s look over the Atlantic.

LAX canceled (red) and retained (green) Atlantic map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

It’s shocking to see everything gone except for Amsterdam, London, and Paris. There are no United/Lufthansa options after Lufthansa announced it would extend its barebones schedules through the end of May. Of course, that will come back, but it’s unlikely many of these secondary markets will return any time soon.

Now, let’s head south.

LAX canceled (red) and retained (green) Central/South America map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

It may be hard to find the green on this map in a sea of red. Outside Mexico, the only city with service is San Salvador. In Mexico, it’s Guadalajara, Loreto, Los Cabos, Mexico City, and Puerto Vallarta. That’s more than I would have expected.

Most of these maps have been dominated by what’s not operating. So let’s put this another way. This is what LAX should have looked like internationally in May:

LAX pre-COVID19 international map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

And here’s what it does look like.

LAX remaining international map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Now let’s talk domestic. I’ll break this into two charts so you can see more clearly. First, these are the routes that aren’t flying in May.

LAX canceled Continental US/Canada map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

The disappearing routes are mostly thinner, longer haul routes in addition to short-haul routes that are meant more for connections. Then you can look at what remains.

LAX remaining Continental US/Canada map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Of course, there are flights to other airline hubs, but the bulk of the rest of the service is thanks to Southwest — which I deemed the Southwest effect at the top of this post — and Alaska having far more service than they should.

There you have it. Naturally, this will change as people start traveling again. Let’s hope this is the floor and things can only go up from here. I’ll have my first June analysis later this week.

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38 comments on “Some Airports Feel More May Pain Than Others, LAX Included

  1. It was only a couple of months ago locals were questioning/complaining about aircraft noise of inbound flights heading downwind to land north here at Washington-Dulles. Now, it’s just dead, nothing. I really do miss those big birds, especially that morning arrival of Emirates 231 A388 from Dubai. Just the prettiest bird ever!

  2. One slight correction… AS also uses Portland as a hub, but nowhere the size of Seattle.

    It’s incredible to see what has happened to both Newark & National, but in the case of the latter the same thing sort of happen on 9/11. This caused some to ponder if National should be closed being so close to the capitol & in a dense neighborhood adjacent to Alexandria & the Crystal City village in Arlington.

  3. Your blog really outshines others with a data-driven approach to writing your articles.

    Given that LAX is less of a hub and more of a point to point airport including across the Pacific, it will certainly lose some service as airlines try to preserve service to their largest markets first. Some of those point to point routes in Asia will not return for years.

    Remember also that WN specifically said on their earnings call that they are not removing a certain percentage of their flights from schedules but cancelling them within the last few days before departure if bookings are not sufficient. This not only potentially reduces their cash burn but also positions them to pick up traffic from other carriers as they appear to have more nonstop destinations across their network; whether they actually maintain a larger number of nonstops or switch people to connections or through flights at the last minute is unknown.

  4. Thanks for putting that together. A small note: both United and American have cancelled their LAX flights to MFR and EUG in May. Allegiant still has 2 flights a week on the schedule but I’m not sure if you’re counting Allegiant in these maps.

  5. One future suggestion for the maps would be to use dots (for destination airports) instead of great circle lines. It would de-clutter the map and I believe it would be much easier to read. Since all the routes originate from the same location (LAX), lines are not necessary.

  6. Is it possible that some of these passenger flights are listed, but no seats are being sold because the airline may be operating the flight for the high value cargo instead?

    1. Wish I could edit my comment :(

      And if this is true, does the plane have to operate with a full crew (including flight attendants) if there are no passengers

    2. TC – Some of the Asian flights, yes, it’s possible. But for the rest, they shouldn’t show up as available for sale if they were cargo only. They’d be charters that aren’t bookable.

    3. I’m not familiar with the passenger flights listed, but I’d doubt it, simply because the cargo would have to be fairly heavy and high value in order to eliminate the possibility of making additional revenue by carrying pax. There have been reports of airlines converting some planes into combi planes, however (taking out seats and adding cargo space on the main deck of pax planes), and it’s safe to say that a fair number of the longer range passenger planes that are being retired will eventually be converted to cargo planes.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that unless cargo is EXTREMELY urgent or perishable, it’s generally not efficient to fly cargo-only planes too far nonstop. Even if the planes don’t hit their max weight limits, the planes need to burn more fuel to haul the fuel needed at the end of a long journey (i.e., the fuel needed for the last part of a 7,000 mile trip requires additional fuel to move the added weight all that distance). The price of kerosene has fallen to very low levels, but even $0.40-$0.50/gallon in recent days it’s still a significant cost.

      That (and a location conveniently close to many of the great circle routes from Eastern Asia to North America) is why ANC is the 4th or 5th busiest cargo airport in the world, despite a metro area population of only 400,000 people. For example, ANC is within 4,000 miles of almost all of the continental US, and a stopover in ANC on the way to ICN adds less than 300 miles compared to flying nonstop to ICN from JFK or LAX.

      1. Although generally true, modern passenger aircraft are more efficient optimized for longer flights (such as a B777 vs. the MD-11s and B747s that were are and still are very popular for freight). Carrying more fuel for a longer flight costs more, but the takeoff uses a huge amount more than just cruising, so 2 takeoffs instead of 1 doesn’t necessarily save that much fuel, if any, depending on the exact flight lengths. Anchorage is in a great position for a cargo hub, so the large freight companies can move freight to and from many different destinations, but just as a stop in point-to-point flights it isn’t as important.

  7. It is amazing to see the number of European and Asian destinations formally served from LAX. How many of these will be back? I know shortly after 9/11, Alitalia suspended service and didn’t return for 6 years. I’m sure we will see a lot of the same types of long term suspensions in service. It’s a shame because it was always nice to see the variety of foreign carriers at LAX.

    Also begs the question on if LAX will open the mid field terminal or just complete it and shut it off until traffic returns.

  8. 13 flights from China today going to TBIT. No pax. Cargo of surgical and N95 masks mostly. Cargo even on pax seats, off-loaded via beltloaders through R side doors. The pure freighters from China carry 6 million masks each flight. UA has been running a B77W to HKG daily, only cargo. Cargo is keeping the lights on.

  9. I guess I’m surprised at how many int’l destinations were served from LAX pre-crisis. Did any other US gateway match it? Hadn’t given it much thought outside of times when on the rental car bus creeping through traffic on World Way pondering what foreigners thought of our crumbling infrastructure. The reality is that now would be the ideal time to truly revamp facilities like LAX or JFK. Traffic is down so demolishing a terminal wouldn’t be near the logistical nightmare during normal times. Everyone is saying this is a multi-year downturn and a big infrastructure project would put a lot of people to work. Actually I’m kinda surprised cities/states haven’t used the lock downs as an opportunity. Fast track any roads project now. Why not?

    1. A,
      DL did say on its earnings call that it may accelerate some of its airport construction projects precisely because it might be cheaper to not have to work around current operations as they otherwise would have done. They didn’t mention at which airports they might do that but they are self-funding their renovations at both LGA and LAX and both involve rebuilding on the same footprints as their existing facilities.

      FC,
      DL envisioned SEA as a transpacific gateway to Asia; SEA to E. Asia is the shortest distance from the continental US. In time, they recognized they must have a hub that competes in the top local markets which is why it is a hub.
      DL probably will eventually grow in LAX esp. as AA has decided it will not compete in the LAX to China market but LAX is not conducive as a longhaul hub. If you have to pick one market as a hub and local market, it would be SFO – which UA has claimed. DL might end up with a decent sized west coast presence with LAX focused on local traffic while SEA focuses on connections and the PNW local market.

  10. Given the drop in demand, I see the larger carriers reducing their service at secondary LA airport (especially WN) and consolidating some of that flow into LAX. AA and UA are probably going to be quite a bit smaller the next few years given their debt issues. WN, B6 and NK are going to be salivating at their once in a decade opportunity to grab more gates at LAX. AS is probably going to remove A320s and become single mainline fleet type again. F9 is gone from LAX. G4 and SY are probably not far away from that. Given how many A320 pilots are based in LAX, that means they will be a lot smaller at LAX for the next couple of years.

    This is probably when DL and WN going to make their moves at LAX. It’s baffling to me why DL is treating SEA as more important than LAX at the moment (they have more flights and serve more destination at SEA in May).

    1. B6 has struggled outside of the eastern seaboard. Transcons to BOS, NYC, FLL are probably the extent for their ops out of LAX. I agree that WN, NK and probably DL and AS gain share at the expense of AA and UA. The airport can most likely close the Eagle’s nest.

      1. My rule of thumb is that unless your origin and your destination are both within an hour’s drive of the ocean, B6 isn’t worth considering. A bit of a network on the West Coast, big network on East Coast, but very little in the middle of the country.

      2. Just moving their pre-COVID LGB schedule to LAX and add a couple of more transcon already get them to over 40 flights a day. That’s why they had requested and rumored to have gotten 3 additional gates (for a total of 5) at LAX prior to this. It will be far easier for them to consolidate their operation to LAX (and benefit from at least having some partner feeds there) vs having split LAX/LGB operation. They will look for more gates than that going forward.

        AS is likely to reduce in California and strengthen SEA to fight off DL.

  11. A lot of the mainland China flights seem really marginal (actually all except PEK, PVG, CAN, and possibly CTU) and I bet that many of them won’t come back. Domestically those Chinese airports and cities are reasonably big and important, but there simply isn’t enough demand to fill airplanes, even at ridiculously low prices, and only local government subsidies allowed many of them to start in the first place.

    1. ignore any flight operated into LAX by mainland airlines. they’re forced by CCP to show a fascade of normality.

      You wanna see how well China’s economic recovery is, look at flights flown in last 1 week of

      (1) domestic capacity on PEK-SHA-CAN trunks

      and

      (2) Europe/Australia/NorthAm flights to PEK/PKX/PVG, but only operated by foreign airlines.

      Best is counting %RPM against prior baseline, but %seats or even %flts is a good enough approximation.

      I like this metric for how easy it is for anyone to perform the calculation, no prior knowledge of intricacies of flight scheduling , special subscription, or even education level required (basic literacy shouldn’t be too much to ask), has very strong correlation with GNP and GDP, while completely immune from fudging or sugar-coating by untruthful governments.

      please ignore the meaningless method of counting just future OAG schedules like CAPA. They’re painting a super rosy picture. China is doing tons of day-of-flight cancellations, and having flights only at full fare Y inventory so no one will ever book them, but gives the illusion of capacity recovery.

      1. Good point about China’s current recovery (or lack thereof). I haven’t really been paying attention to anything domestic within China but I’d still be skeptical of pretty much anything they say, whether airline-related or not.

        However, even before all this I don’t think most of those flights were even remotely close to being profitable. United had tried to serve some of those (XIY, HGH) and rapidly dropped them along with reducing frequency to CTU. Premium fares to PEK and PVG were reasonably high, but anywhere else, along with any Y seats, were always dirt cheap, across all airlines.

  12. these days i almost wanted to hold up a sign in front of selfie cam that says :

    “Dear CCP lovers : we stayed in our homes for you, you stay inside Wuhan for us”

  13. When it comes to the LAX cutbacks: So a lot of consolidation will be happening over the next couple of years as well as culling unprofitable routes/operations that might have been kept for prestige in the past. If you assume AA/OW now has the lead at LAX with the AS alliance, but has fallen to a distant third (fourth?) in NYC, would it make sense for AA to swap the bulk of their LGA operations (-0.8% operating profit margins, ~170 departures/day pre-virus to 45 year-round destinations + 19 seasonal destinations) to UA in exchange for the bulk of UA’s gates/slots at LAX (~142 flights/day pre-virus to 66 destinations)? They would keep existing gates/operations from each airport to their other hubs, of course – so maybe they’re swapping about ~100 flights/day, maybe ~10-12 gates? This consolidates AA profitably at LAX (vs. -0.9% margins now) and gives UA a leg up in NYC, both vs. DL in those markets. For UA, the LGA slots could handle a lot more of the NYC O&D demand so EWR would have room to expand TATL connecting opportunities which – pre-virus – they were trying to shift to IAD because there was so much O&D demand at EWR.

    I also think UA sees the writing on the wall at LAX – might as well get some compensation for the inevitable decline. Kinda like sports teams that trade a player under contract they’re about to lose to free agency anyway, so they at least get something before they lose them. And then there’s the old saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – both strike a blow against their leading competitor, DL.

    I would also argue that this has a better chance of getting approval under a Trump administration during an airline industry crisis than a potential Biden administration next year.

    Thoughts?

    1. Tory – I don’t think United really wants much at LaGuardia. It wants back into JFK so it can fly long-haul from there, but this is pretty limited.
      United wants to focus its efforts on Newark. I’m not convinced that United sees the writing on the wall at LAX.

      1. Well heck, throw a JFK gate or two in the deal as well! ;-)

        I think it would strengthen EWR. First, it makes UA more attractive for loyal premium fliers in Manhattan, Westchester, and southwest Connecticut, inc. wealthy Greenwich and Stamford – and they would go to EWR for some flights that aren’t available at LGA. Second, it lets UA shift more NYC O&D demand to LGA so they can accommodate more TATL connecting passengers at constrained EWR, meaning they can support more international destinations out of EWR. Third, it gives UA the option of doing their own DCA-LGA-BOS shuttle operation to compete with DL (and AA if they keep it), which is key to a lot of premium fliers in NYC – and that, in turn, frees up slots at EWR for more exotic destinations.

        But I think you might be right about UA being unwilling to concede LAX right now, and maybe they’re right. I’m certainly not excited about them giving it up. I just don’t know how profitable it’s been, or how profitable they’d be able to make ~100 slots at LGA vs. what AA has done with them. And it does seem like LAX will always be a stepchild to SFO for UA, while AA and DL will be more willing to pour resources in there because they have fewer alternatives. A strategic withdrawal may be be better than losing battle…

        1. Tory – I think you overestimate the return of traffic. It’s going to be a long time before United has to worry about Newark being too full to handle its operation. Instead, United should be more worried about funneling as much through there as it can to keep the hub going. There is no need to shift O&D traffic to LaGuardia. There’s going to be plenty of room at Newark for years, I’d bet. United already has LGA set up to handle those who want to fly from there by connecting via its hubs. It doesn’t need more than that. JFK, sure, it would like to be back there, but that’s hardly enough to trade to get an entire operation in LA.

          1. Yes, I’m assuming traffic gets back to 2019 levels by 2022-23 where slots are at a premium, which very well may not be the case. If we assume this permanently reduces biz travel (likely) and maybe even reduces the vibrancy/interest/growth in NYC (virus central) for the long-term, then you’re right – it’s a bad idea. In that case, assuming AA is going to be forced to trim down unprofitable ops, financially stronger airlines will end up moving in on those LGA slots/gates over time, most likely WN (although DL may try). LAX is a lot harder to predict, and I doubt any airline will be able to seize significant market share, although if anyone should try it’s probably AS. They could probably get some very generously priced and financed 737MAXs from Boeing over the next few years and pair them with some T6-adjacent gates picked up from AA and/or UA plus some nice new OW feed…

    2. UA has 5 LGA slots it doesn’t know what to do with right now after dropping LGA-CLE. The reality is that UA will likely need even fewer LGA slots at this. They are going to consolidate things to EWR.

      AA definitely will have LGA slots it can’t use. So basically, UA/AA will end up leasing/selling some slots to WN or B6 or Nk.

  14. Pretty wild to see no flights, zero, not a single one to the rather large country directly at our northern border.

    No LAX service to the great white North, eh? Take off, you hosers!

  15. Brett, what we’re seeing is an event that most of us will hopefully experience just once in our lifetime, leading to a huge drop in travel. Hopefully the travel industry recovers faster rather than slower. I hope the entire Cranky family- wife and kids, employees, customers, enthusiasts, are all staying safe and healthy. My wife is an oncology nurse. Luckily, her cancer hospital doesn’t see too many COVID-19 positive patients. When they do, proper precautions are taken.

    Out of curiosity, did anyone come remotely close to predicting this level of air travel drop, even as a joke, in their beginning of the year prediction? Or will we have to wait until the end of the year to find out?

    Stay safe everyone, and I hope we are able to resume our normal travel patterns soon.

  16. Will LAX’s midfield concourse still open this year? Not at all?

    Why open and staff a whole building when the rest of the airport is well underutilized.

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