Flying Via a Smaller Airport? It May Take a While

Cathy Cichowski was trying to get from Halifax, Canada to San Antonio, Texas, where her job in a hospital involves workplace safety. She came to Canada to say goodbye to her terminally ill mother but was desperately needed back at the hospital, where one of her tasks is helping make sure nurses’ masks are appropriately fitted.

Since the third week in March, her return flights were canceled twice and then rescheduled for April 15, but after five calls and an estimated seven hours on the phone with United Airlines, she was able to fly out on April 8, on a route that went from Halifax to Toronto to Houston to San Antonio, rather than her original one-stop through Newark. It took her more than 14 hours to get home.

The steep drop in demand caused by the pandemic has the airlines instituting last-minute cancellations while significantly reducing future schedules, making it hard for passengers to know if a purchased ticket will result in an actual flight. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, United and Delta have all announced domestic flight reductions of about 70 percent.

Large airports have seen their number of flights drastically reduced. United has cut its flights to Newark Liberty International Airport from 139 per day serving 62 destinations to 15 flights per day serving nine destinations. Actual departures from Newark by all airlines dropped to 99 on April 7 from 564 on March 7, according to Flightradar24, a global flight tracking service and app.

But as bad as things are at major airports, for small-market cities, which may have a limited number of carriers, the effect has been amplified.

On April 5, 21 of 27 flights scheduled to depart from the Charlottesville, Va., airport were canceled, according to Flightradar24. Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, which began commercial flights to California, Denver and Las Vegas from Paine Field Airport north of Seattle in March 2019, had 38 departures scheduled for March 8 of this year. By April 5 that was down to 24 scheduled departures, 13 of which were canceled.

In upstate New York, scheduled departures from the Syracuse Hancock International Airport dropped to 18 per day from about 70 a day at the beginning of March. On a recent day midweek, 12 of those were canceled. (Passengers are supposed to get refunds when the airlines cancel, though in some cases they have been offered credits instead.)

When Sofia Dudas flew from Austin, Texas, to Seattle on April 5, only one of the three scheduled nonstop flights took off, and even so, she said there were only about 15 passengers on her flight, which could accommodate more than 150 people.

As part of the government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that offers financial support to United States airlines, the airlines must continue to serve the airports they did before March 1, as long as it is “reasonable and practicable,” but routing can change, international destinations are not included, and exceptions are granted. Airlines serving different airports within one metro area can consolidate service to one of those airports.

The frequency of the required flights is determined by the airlines’ schedule before March. If an airline was providing at least one flight a day at least five days per week, it now is required to provide at least one flight per day, five days per week, for that area. If the area was served fewer than five days per week, the airline needs to service it once a week. But if too few passengers book tickets on a flight or no one shows up at the gate, the flight can be canceled.

The airlines can change routing, so cities that may have only recently gained nonstops are losing them, and passengers hoping to travel from those cities may have to fly circuitous routes that go through an airline’s hubs.

United changed about 130 nonstops to connecting flights through one or even two of its hubs. Appleton, Wis., a small city in the northeast part of the state, got its first nonstops to Denver in June 2018. Now, fliers are being offered a route that goes from Denver south to Atlanta, back north to Chicago, and then on to Appleton. The short United Airlines flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Palm Springs will now go through San Francisco or Denver. Delta’s former nonstop between Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Seattle now flies through Detroit, Minneapolis or Atlanta.

Some of the suspended nonstop flights may still appear on the companies’ websites, but these will be updated soon.

Kathy Osborne decided on March 30 to leave New York for Fort Myers, Fla., where her parents own a home, and purchased a ticket for April 4. “We wanted to get out of there,” said Ms. Osborne of her attempt with her fiancé to leave town. “It was truly scary because people in our neighborhood didn’t seem to be taking the quarantine seriously at all,” she said.

Her first reservation with United Airlines was canceled the day after she purchased it, and the airline said she wouldn’t be able to fly for two weeks. The airport at Fort Myers has dropped to about 85 arrivals per day, down from about 230 per day, over the last month, according to Flightradar24.

JetBlue was still flying to between New York and Ft. Myers, but only once per day instead of the usual multiple times, and the agent on the line couldn’t guarantee that the flight would not be canceled. But Ms. Osborne, who needed a day to pack and wrap up her work affairs, booked it. The flight took off and the pair made it to Ft. Myers, wearing turtlenecks to pull up over their faces.

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