The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American Airlines to cut service to 15 cities once terms on billions in pandemic aid expire

A member of a ground crew walks past American Airlines planes parked at the gate during the pandemic at Reagan National Airport in April.
A member of a ground crew walks past American Airlines planes parked at the gate during the pandemic at Reagan National Airport in April. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

American Airlines plans to suspend flights to 15 cities in October, when a federal ban against service cuts carriers agreed to as part of a multibillion-dollar coronavirus aid package expires.

The change, announced Thursday, means 10 airports will lose their only airline service.

Bill Hopper, executive director of the Pitt-Greenville Airport Authority in North Carolina, said American called him Wednesday night to share news.

“It’s unfortunate,” Hopper said. “We understand there’s some pretty significant challenges that the airlines are facing, and we’re going to work tirelessly with the local community and American Airlines to ensure that we can get the service back up as soon as possible.”

The other airports are Del Rio, Tex.; Dubuque and Sioux City, Iowa; Florence, S.C.; Huntington, W.Va.; Joplin, Mo.; Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, Mich.; Lake Charles, La.; New Haven, Conn.; New Windsor, N.Y.; Roswell, N.M.; Springfield, Ill.; Stillwater, Okla.; and Williamsport, Pa.

American’s announcement is another sign of how the pandemic continues to shake the aviation industry, which is also preparing to shed tens of thousands of jobs come October.

In a statement, the carrier said it was dropping service to the airports between Oct. 7 and Nov. 3, citing “low demand and the expiration of the air service requirements associated with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.”

The airline said the cuts and other service changes will be under review as Congress debates whether to extend financial aid to the aviation industry through next March. The airline said it will publish its November schedule late next month.

“This is the first step as American continues to evaluate its network and plans for additional schedule changes in the coming weeks,” American said.

As airline workers face steep job losses, unions call on Congress to extend $25 billion rescue package

This spring, lawmakers passed a $50 billion package designed to keep the airlines afloat as the coronavirus ravaged the business, driving down passenger volumes by as much as 95 percent. The money came with provisions designed to protect workers and smaller communities, but as the expiration of those protections approaches airline executives have said they expect their operations to be smaller.

Demand for air travel began to rebound in late April as the virus’s spread slowed and growth continued steadily until mid-July. But growth has all but stalled since then, and airline leaders now say they expect the ultimate recovery to be prolonged, perhaps taking several years.

On Wednesday, just 587,000 people passed through Transportation Security Administration screening checkpoints, compared with 2.3 million last year.

Hopper, whose airport serves businesses, a major medical complex and a college in eastern North Carolina, said he had witnessed the slowing of the recovery.

“I think every airport in the country is keeping their eyes on what’s happening in the industry and are trying to plan how best to address it,” he said.

As part of the rescue package, Congress gave the Transportation Department the power to require airlines to maintain pre-pandemic levels of service until March 2022. But the department chose only to exercise that power until Sept. 30 of this year, when a ban on furloughs and layoffs of airline employees also expires.

Unions representing pilots, flight attendants and other workers in the industry are urging Congress to extend the part of the rescue package that supports wages and benefits through March. Airlines have said that once the ban lifts on Oct. 1, they are prepared to layoff tens of thousands of workers.

“This really could hamstring the rebound of the industry and the growth of the economy,” Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, said in a virtual town hall Thursday.

How coronavirus grounded the airline industry

A majority of House members and 16 Senate Republicans have said they support extending the payroll protections, but negotiations over a broader coronavirus relief package have been stalled for weeks.

If lawmakers do act, it is not clear whether the Transportation Department would choose to also extend the prohibition on service cuts.

Connie G. Anderson, executive director of the Florence Regional Airport, said her team supported more financial help for airlines as a way of protecting smaller airports like hers.

“While this is certainly detrimental news to our region, we remain hopeful that this will not be the end of a long relationship with American Airlines,” Anderson said in a statement.

While the Transportation Department generally required airlines to maintain service, it granted some exceptions and in May allowed them to end services at some airports as long as those airports continued to be served by another carrier.

At a hearing in May, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he was already seeing cuts to service in the communities he represents and questioned whether flights would ever return.

Nicholas Calio, head of Airlines for America, a major trade group, sought to reassure him.

“If that demand comes back, I guarantee you you’ll have the flights,” Calio said.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.