The Department of Transport said on Friday evening that it would provisionally allow 15 airlines to stop flights to about 60 cities, mostly small and medium-sized, although none of the destinations is at risk of losing its service entirely.
The destinations are mainly in secondary markets where airlines have said there is little demand for flights or which could be served by other nearby airports.
American Airlines, for example, would be allowed to stop flying to a Worcester, Massachusetts airport, which is just over an hour’s drive from Boston Logan International Airport. It would also be permissible to stop flying to Aspen and Eagle, Colo.
Delta Air Lines may discontinue service to Erie, Pennsylvania; Flint, Mich .; Lincoln, Neb .; and Williston, N.D., among others. United Airlines may halt flights to Fairbanks, Alaska; Kalamazoo, Mich .; Myrtle Beach, S.C .; and others.
However, none of the cities will be left without service, as the agency only grants exemptions if other airlines continue to fly there, he added. The Department of Transportation has also said it reserves the right to revoke any decision if it results in “insufficient capacity or connectivity” to a destination.
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The decision is rooted in the federal stimulus package adopted in late March, known as the CARES Act. Under this law, any airline that has received federal assistance, including all major carriers, is required to maintain a minimum number of flights to the destinations it served before the pandemic wiped out virtually all of the request for air travel. But the law also allowed the Department of Transportation to grant exceptions, which it has been doing regularly for weeks.
The agency said it would consider any objections or comments to its decision before 5 p.m. next Thursday.
The epidemic has created a devastating crisis for the aviation industry, worse than the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 or the financial crisis ten years ago. The demand for flights started to drop in March. In mid-April, airlines carried an average of 95% fewer passengers compared to the previous year.
Several airlines this week said they had begun to see some recovery in demand, but warned that it could be short-lived.
“We have seen a bit of a rebound, but my caution is not to draw too many conclusions,” said Paul Jacobson, chief financial officer of Delta, on Tuesday.
On Thursday, the Transportation Security Administration screened fewer than 320,000 passengers and airline and airport workers at its security checkpoints at Canadian airports, less than 12% of those screened a year ago.
Most industry experts and executives say they expect it to take several years before the industry returns to demand before pandemic levels.