Airlines want relief from flying near-empty planes as passenger numbers hit lowest since the 1950s amid virus

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KEY POINTS
  • Airlines are seeking relief from federally mandated minimum flight requirements as passenger numbers drop.
  • A trade group representing the largest U.S. airlines made the appeal in prepared remarks ahead of a Senate hearing.
  • Carriers are required to maintain certain levels of air service under the conditions of billions in federal coronavirus aid.
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Flight attendants talk in a nearly empty cabin on a Delta Airlines flight operated by SkyWest Airlines as travel has cutback, amid concerns of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a flight departing from Salt Lake City, Utah, April 11, 2020.
Flight attendants talk in a nearly empty cabin on a Delta Airlines flight operated by SkyWest Airlines as travel has cutback, amid concerns of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a flight departing from Salt Lake City, Utah, April 11, 2020.

A lobbying group representing U.S. airlines on Wednesday said federally mandated minimum service requirements are “unsustainable” for carriers as the Covid-19 pandemic sends passenger numbers to the lowest levels since the 1950s.

One of the requirements to receive portions of $25 billion in federal payroll grants and loans under the coronavirus rescue package is that airlines have to keep a certain number of flights, which varies by carrier and is based on networks before the disease spread widely.

The Department of Transportation has issued some waivers but Airlines for America, which represents DeltaAmericanUnitedSouthwestJetBlueAlaska and Hawaiian, but “the cost associated with operating nearly empty flights to communities with little to no demand significantly exacerbates air carrier liquidity,” Airlines for America said.

Airlines are among the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus and the shelter-in-place orders. They have parked about half of their planes and cut thousands of flights to try to save money, but are already posting their first quarterly losses in years. The industry group estimates U.S. airlines are burning about $10 billion of cash a month.

Even with the reduced schedule, airlines are averaging about 17 passengers per flight, A4A said.

“We would ask both this Committee and the Administration to seek solutions to address the challenges posed by this unsustainable requirement,” said Nicholas Calio, A4A’s president and CEO, in prepared testimony ahead of a hearing at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “Make no mistake, as the duration of this pandemic lingers, the reasonability and practicality of this requirement significantly diminishes. Carriers and communities alike are going to have to come together and acknowledge the footprint and frequency of service in 2019 cannot convey to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic reality.”

U.S. air travel demand dropped 96% in April to the lowest levels since before the jet age, Airlines for America said.

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