American Airlines to drop flights to 15 cities in the fall

Fort Worth-based American Airlines will drop flights to 15 smaller U.S. cities in October when a federal requirement to serve those communities ends.

The airline blamed low demand during the coronavirus pandemic, which has triggered a massive slump in air travel and huge losses for the carriers. Airlines and their labor unions are seeking billions in new taxpayer relief.

American said its schedule covering Oct. 7 through Nov. 3 will drop flights to cities including Sioux City, Iowa; New Haven, Connecticut; and Springfield, Illinois.

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

More than half of the cities that American is dropping have no other airline service.

“A lot of routes from these smaller cities are subsidized by the federal government year-round,” pointed out Denny Kelly a retired commercial airline captain. “So if they're not going to get subsidies, they're gonna dump them.”

A massive pandemic-relief measure approved in March set aside up to $50 billion in cash and low-interest loans for the nation's passenger airlines. American was the largest recipient — $10.7 billion if a pending loan wins final approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.

American Airlines aircraft.(Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In return for taxpayer dollars, airlines were barred from furloughing workers and were required, in most cases, to continue serving destinations they had before the pandemic. Both of those conditions expire Sept. 30.

Passenger airlines and their labor unions are lobbying for an additional $25 billion to keep paying workers and avoid furloughs through next March. Cargo airlines and contractors would get $7 billion.

The push by airlines and labor has received significant support in Washington. A majority of the Democratic-controlled House endorsed the additional money, so did 16 Senate Republicans. President Donald Trump spoke favorably about helping the airlines when asked about the proposal.

However, the provision is wrapped up in discussions over a larger virus-relief package that would include extended unemployment benefits and, Democrats hope, aid to cities and state governments. The fate of that measure is unclear after negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House broke down more than a week ago.

Paul Hartshorn Jr. is with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines. He says the union is hoping Congress will pass additional CARES Act funding. If not, the airline has already warned thousands of flight attendants and other airline workers they could be furloughed.

“There is another symptom for a lack of extension in the PPP right?! Within that, we know come Oct. 1 we have the potential to lose 75,000 aviation jobs across the country,” he said. “Also included in that is loss of service to smaller communities.”

An American Airlines executive cited the stalemate in Washington for the airline's decision to cut service to some destinations.

“We have been holding off, hoping that we would come to some sort of agreement that would extend (the payroll money) and would extend the service requirement. That broader negotiation does seem to be stalled, and this is an unfortunate casualty of that," said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity to explain private discussions about the decision.

Without more federal money, airlines may lay off or furlough tens of thousands of workers as early as Oct. 1. American has warned 25,000 workers they could lose their jobs. United Airlines has sent notices covering 36,000 employees. The final number of cuts will depend on how many employees take offers of buyouts, early retirement or long-term leave.

The requirement to preserve most routes that airlines flew before the pandemic has been unpopular with airlines because many of them carry few passengers. The Transportation Department agreed to let airlines drop a few cities if other carriers continued flying there, but many other requests were denied.

American Airlines lost more than $2 billion in its most recent quarter.

Other airlines declined to comment on their plans.

Industry analysts believe American did not simply ax cities with the fewest flights or seats. The airline likely considered other factors, such as competition and important customers, they said.

“It's a network planner's nightmare to pull out of a city,” said Jim Ogden, a product director at aviation data firm Cirium and a former network planner for American. "When you close down a city, you're cutting those customers off to your entire network."

American could continue to serve the smaller cities in a limited capacity, through flights at nearby airports or by selling tickets to flights operated there by another carrier, a practice called code-sharing.

Other cities that American dropped from the October schedule are Del Rio, Texas; Dubuque, Iowa; Florence, South Carolina; Greenville, North Carolina; Huntington, West Virginia; Joplin, Missouri; Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Michigan; Lake Charles, Louisiana; New Windsor, New York; Roswell, New Mexico; Stillwater, Oklahoma; and Williamsport, Pennsylvania.