United, Spirit Lock Down October While the Rest Tinker In Leisure Markets

Schedule Changes

On this week’s episode, the Globe — I just can’t keep calling him the Tulip — and the Big Yellow Bird finally ended the growing suspense by announcing their plans for October. Now, everyone is on the same page, more than at any time during this pandemic. Meanwhile, the other residents of Airlineville were mostly quiet, playing with their toys and plotting their futures one route at a time. It was a quiet, long weekend with few surprises, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t little nuggets hiding in plain sight.

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Skeds of air Lines.

United was the last of the big four to file its October schedule, and now we can look at how the big four airlines have evolved their plans since the beginning of the pandemic. I find it fascinating that they’ve now all settled into the same plan.

Data via Cirium

You can see some very different strategies since the pandemic hit in March. Southwest cut the least, followed by American which surged early when it made the right bet that demand would come back in June. Delta and United stayed conservative, though Delta added back more (offset by its continued policy of blocking the middle seat). Now here we are in October, and they’ve all come together in the 49 to 55 percent range. The name of the game now is to see whether this diverges in future months.

And now, let’s see what each airline has done this past week.

American Dabbles in the Outdoors, Makes Some Europe Switches

It was a relatively quiet week for American, but that doesn’t mean the airline didn’t make some interesting long-term moves.

Let’s start with the long-haul. American was flying Philly to Amsterdam and Dublin year-round. It was also flying from Dallas/Fort Worth to Amsterdam and Dublin seasonally. Over the weekend, American flipped the script. Now these cities will get year-round service from DFW. Philly service doesn’t return until March 27.

Meanwhile, LA to Sydney wasn’t supposed to return until March 26. Now, it will come back November 10 for some reason. Cargo? It’s hard to say, but it can’t be for passenger demand. Australia most certainly won’t be open for business by then.

In the short-haul market, American has beefed up winter frequencies in some of its ski markets like Jackson, Bozeman, Aspen, etc. One notable frequency increase is in Sioux Falls to Phoenix. Sioux City may be going away, but nearby Sioux Falls gained Charlotte last week, so it’s doing rather well.

Beyond that, some new and returning routes are coming online.

  • Charlotte to Appleton (WI) starts November 5
  • Chicago/O’Hare to Sarasota returns for the winter on November 4
  • Daytona Beach to DFW and Philly starts December 17
  • Philadelphia to Salt Lake City returns December 17
  • Philadelphia to Palm Springs operates weekly in the winter starting December 19

Alaska Shifts East-West for North-South

The ongoing shifting in Alaska’s network to re-orient north-south continues as planned. The resumption of Portland to Boston and Minneapolis/St Paul along with San Francisco to Orlando has now been pushed from October 4 to November 20. Further, Seattle to Dallas/Fort Worth, Philly, and Washington/Dulles each lose a frequency from October 4 through November 20. The same goes for Portland to Phoenix and it happens in early December for Portland to Palm Springs.

Meanwhile, Seattle to Tucson gets an extra daily flight starting October 1. Seattle to Reno gets the same from October 4 through November 20. Lastly, Seattle to Santa Barbara grows by one a day from November 20 through the end of the year.

Delta Tinkers Everywhere

It was a week of tweaking for Delta, but none of it was enormous. In fact, let’s just bullet point the notable moves.

  • Atlanta to Munich and Boston to Paris/CDG were coming back in October but now won’t be coming back until April 1, 2021.
  • JFK to Accra and Dakar get a little more frequency than previously planned.
  • Minor frequency cuts (one or two a week) are coming to JFK to Barcelona, Brussels, Dublin, Frankfurt, Madrid, Milan, Rome, and Zurich this fall.
  • Salt Lake gets Guadalajara service November 8 to January 31 for the first time since January 2018.
  • Los Angeles to Salvador begins December 19.

Spirit Cuts October in Half

I showed what the big four were doing in October at the top of this post, but I mentioned Spirit had also made its October cuts. The airline fits right in line with the big guys, having 51 percent of flights operating versus last year.

Data via Cirium

Spirit certainly has gotten a whole lot more bearish since those lofty July days.

United Comes in the Lowest

Though everyone is congregating around 50 percent of last year’s flight numbers, United is actually the lowest at just shy of 49 percent.

A whopping 79 routes that didn’t operate in September will return in October. They are all over the map, ranging from the introduction of Denver to Sioux City (planned before) to a host of Latin/Caribbean markets and yes, Hawai’i. Of course, we’ll see if Hawai’i sticks since it all depends upon the quarantine being lifted. Several short-haul flights return including LA to Palm Springs and Albany to Newark.

Meanwhile, there are a few routes that operated in September that won’t in October.

  • Chicago/O’Hare – Jackson Hole
  • Chicago/O’Hare – Montreal
  • Chicago/O’Hare – Tokyo/Haneda
  • Houston/Intercontinental – Aruba
  • Houston/Intercontinental – Montego Bay
  • Houston/Intercontinental – Punta Cana
  • Los Angeles – Bozeman
  • San Francisco – Baltimore
  • San Francisco – Monterey

Many of these have a seasonal feel to them, but Chicago to Tokyo disappearing is telling.

Meanwhile, Key West shifts one daily flight this winter from O’Hare over to Washington/Dulles. And lastly, Ithaca and Manchester (NH) will now remain suspended until March 28.

Southwest Bumps Up October

As always, Southwest has been reading the tea leaves and has added 2.6 points worth of flights back in October. Most are just frequency increases at low levels, but a couple of routes that were going to be in the November schedule have been pulled forward into October. That includes Chicago/Midway to Norfolk, Memphis to Orlando, and Panama City to St Louis.

And that’s all for this week. Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Skeds of air Lines.

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11 comments on “United, Spirit Lock Down October While the Rest Tinker In Leisure Markets

  1. It is worth noting that on a pure US to US basis (not including Canada or any international), DL has replaced the most capacity as measured by ASMs on a year over year basis at down 41% followed by AS and then F9; the US airline average is -43.6% with WN slightly ahead of that average and AA slightly behind. UA has still restored the lowest percentage of domestic capacity and also is flying a higher percentage of regional jets than it did a year ago, like AS. DL is right at the average in terms of RJ use while AA is flying slightly less RJs.

    Since no airline is likely to report load factors above the cap which DL and WN are using, it is likely that the cap at those two airlines and others that have one are just forcing the lowest fare passengers off the most full flights to others. DL is also slowly increasing its cap throughout the fall but it will be higher than LUV’s.

  2. I’d love to understand what’s driving flying to Australia (Guest post?) Not only is it closed to outsiders, the government, in a nod to its penal colony history, has barred its own citizens from leaving. Yet United has been flying daily and AA must see something.

    1. I don’t believe QF is operating any of its international flights. It looks to me that it is all foreign airlines that are flying Australia international routes.
      Delta is also flying passenger flights LAX-SYD.

    2. Rich – I wish I knew. I know for United there has been a steady stream of repatriation. And it goes both ways since no Australian airline is flying to the US. But I don’t see why there’s interest in jumping into this market now.

    3. Air cargo rates, at least from the US to AU, are still pretty high, especially relative to other international air cargo lanes, and haven’t come back down from the peak to the (limited) extent that rates on some other lanes have.

      I don’t deal much in that lane, but I’m still seeing rates (on a USD per chargeable kg basis, meaning you get charged for dimensional weight for shipments that aren’t very dense) from the US to AU in the single digits or very low teens range, or roughly USD $1-$1.50 per kg per 1,000 miles.

      I’m not sure what rates are from AU to US, and I don’t know enough about typical variable operational costs to do the napkin math, but my guess is that the air cargo revenue is one of the big factors behind the additional flight to Australia.

  3. Sort of like reading:

    “And now here’s today’s news. Whoops, that’s all changed, but trust us, that was the news as of yesterday. Now here’s today’s news of…, we think, but we’re not sure. Maybe we’ll know tomorrow, but as we speak today, or was it yesterday, we’re not sure…!”

    ” Just show up, go to Gate C17. and, unless it’s Tuesday, or October, which this year has 2 Full Moons, things should work out just fine.”

    “Remember, wear your mask, and don’t forget the folks we lost on 9/11!”

  4. Cranky – here’s the question I’m most interested in – have these different approaches to scheduling resulted in any change to actual domestic market share? I know you can look at share in a variety of ways – total passenger counts, RASM, etc. – have any changed? American (Vasu Raja in particular) was very clear early on that their strategy was explicitly designed to steal share, getting a larger portion of a shrinking pie. Given all the airlines are roughly in the same spot re: flight count as a percentage of last year, my hunch is that not much has truly changed. The only wild card is that today’s travel tilts heavily toward leisure, with the typical flyer having far less airline loyalty than the typical one last year. Market share swings could be more volatile as a result – particularly on a market-by-market basis – but in the aggregate, have any of the Big 4 (perhaps the Big 6 with Alaska and JetBlue) come out with better share than before?

    1. NC – I’m interested in that question as well. But we don’t have market share info yet — T100 data only goes through May. It is most certainly something that will be fun to watch.

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