Airlines receiving the first tranche of government bailout money are required to continue serving nearly all of the cities they flew to prior to the pandemic. In exchange for billions of dollars to fund payroll, the government required that the nation’s air transport system remain intact.
The Department of Transportation has the power to grant exemptions to this, and it makes sense to do so when demand for air travel collapsed over 95%. How many airlines did we need flying empty planes Los Angeles – Honolulu, when Hawaii was imposing a quarantine on all arriving passengers and declared they didn’t want any tourists?
Hawaii routes were granted exemptions early, but overall the initial response from DOT was tight-fisted, leading airlines to contort themselves trying to reduce flights and conserve cash. For instance Delta actually submitted a DOT filing claiming flying during the pandemic was unsafe though oddly the implication they drew was the empty flights should be eliminated, and not full flights.
In response airlines came up with creative ways to meet their obligation, introducing new ‘tag flights’ – short hop routes to cover multiple cities efficiently – such as:
- Alaska Airlines came with a plan to fly Seattle to Dallas to Houston; Seattle to Raleigh to Charleston; Seattle to San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara; Seattle to Pittsburgh to Baltimore; and Seattle to Minneapolis to Columbus.
- Frontier Airlines introduces several circle trips, including routes like Pensacola, Florida – New Orleans and Madison, Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
- Spirit Airlines scheduled Dallas Fort-Worth – Austin, Asheville – Greensboro, Richmond – Charleston, West Virginia and Latrobe – Pittsburgh. This last is just 46 miles.
The Department of Transportation has relaxed things a bit and will now let U.S. airlines drop up to 5% of their destinations (allowing a minimum of 5 destinations to be dropped, and 11 for United, American and Delta), provided that every destination will need to still be served by an airline.
Each airline gets to list the destinations they’d like to drop in preference order, the DOT will hear objections and if they can only grant a request for a city to one airline and more than one wants to drop service they’ll base which one gets to walk away from a city based on where they’ve placed that city in their preference order.
However this doesn’t eliminate the need to consolidate flights, and American Airlines will reportedly introduce a new shortest flight in America, a 29 mile hope from Eagle (Vail) to Aspen, Colorado as part of a Dallas Fort-Worth – Eagle – Aspen – Montrose milk run.
[Mike] Boyd’s “Touch & Go” newsletter noted that airlines are being “forced to do all sorts of scheduling gymnastics to satisfy the DOT’s idiocy.” He pointed to American Airlines last week launching a five-times-a-week flight from Dallas to Eagle to Aspen to Montrose and back to Dallas “just to make the bureaucrats at the DOT happy.”
…The department of transportation said American must continue to serve Montrose, hence the mountain-skipping flight from Dallas.
At this point I do not see the 29 mile Eagle – Aspen flight in American’s schedule however.
The shortest domestic flight I’ve ever taken was United’s 46 mile Baltimore – Washington Dulles turboprop, which ended shortly before 9/11. It was a great way to get a lower fare on a cross country trip, meant I’d be checking in earlier (so higher on the upgrade list) and pick up an extra segment and 500 miles.
It was similar in a way to United’s 30 mile San Francisco – San Jose segment, but that was actually a codeshare bus service and it forced a paper ticket. You’d just rip out the bus coupon, and show up at San Fransciso – for a lower fare and extra miles. And since there was no baggage transfer between the bus and flight, you could even do this with checked bags.
Of course none of these are as short as the shortest scheduled commercial flight in the world, which historically been the 2 mile hop over water, Westray – Papa Westray in Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
Update: It actually is currently bookable in the near-term: