Data Shows How Big U.S. Airlines Are Approaching Recovery Differently

Jeffrey Hartz took a look at the most recent schedule loads for the largest U.S. airlines and finds the decisions being made at Southwest and American fascinating. There are many airports where Delta used to reign that American isn’t just bigger – but bigger than Delta and United combined. This is a strategy I laid out in March.

Hartz is Managing Director – Air Service Consulting with 18 years of experience including scheduling, route planning and air service consulting. I can count on two hands the number of guests posts I’ve shared at View From The Wing over the course of 18 years, but am happy to pass along his insights.

Every week since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many airports and industry insiders are watching schedules loads much closer than in the past, to help get an idea of what is really going on. Back before the airline industry got turned upside down by this pandemic, airline schedulers would take months painstakingly creating schedules, with both a Future Schedules team and then a Current Schedules team working with many of the operational groups (Crew Scheduling, Stations, Maintenance, etc) to create the optimal schedule.  These schedules would be created for either seasons (Spring) or a month, but typically it would be put in concrete 60-90 days before the schedule went into effect, allowing plenty of time to both sell tickets, but also get schedules bid on by crews as well as staffing adjustments at airports.

Starting in March 2020, that all changed with schedules at the beginning being changed almost on an almost daily basis.  Whereas schedules that used to load into reservation systems almost exclusively happened late Saturday-night were being loaded on Tuesdays (or any other day of the week) in order to get the changes in for the very next week. Schedules were being put together in days (weeks if lucky) instead of months.  Lots of midnight oil was being burnt inside schedule planning groups at each airline.  Fast forward three months and we are finally into a slightly less frantic schedule situation at the airlines, where we are seeing schedules being finalized about a month ahead of time and typically only one schedule change a month instead of almost weekly.

This weekend, both United Airlines and American Airlines updated their schedules for July, whereas Delta jumped ahead of the curve and loaded their July schedules 2 weeks ago.  We expect most of the schedules for July have been finalized (except potentially Alaska and Hawaiian).

July 2020 vs July 2019 for Domestic flying only (Source: Diio Mi as of June 8, 2020). 

Travel Period Jul 2020 Jul 2019 Diff Percent Diff
Mkt Al Flights Seats Flights Seats Flights Seats Flights Seats
Southwest 73,566 11,188,642 119,342 17,963,986 (45,776) (6,775,344) (38.4%) (37.7%)
American 100,804 10,866,867 184,815 19,585,247 (84,011) (8,718,380) (45.5%) (44.5%)
Delta 64,498 7,401,815 158,877 18,953,050 (94,379) (11,551,235) (59.4%) (60.9%)
Alaska 37,309 4,766,525 40,098 5,070,839 (2,789) (304,314) (7.0%) (6.0%)
United 51,054 4,610,375 137,533 14,254,360 (86,479) (9,643,985) (62.9%) (67.7%)
Spirit 16,103 2,977,559 18,846 3,460,762 (2,743) (483,203) (14.6%) (14.0%)
Allegiant 10,328 1,788,108 11,778 2,013,696 (1,450) (225,588) (12.3%) (11.2%)
Frontier 8,305 1,574,324 12,548 2,399,382 (4,243) (825,058) (33.8%) (34.4%)
JetBlue 9,528 1,476,610 25,545 3,483,635 (16,017) (2,007,025) (62.7%) (57.6%)
Hawaiian 7,738 1,149,506 8,071 1,162,366 (333) (12,860) (4.1%) (1.1%)
Sun Country 1,304 242,544 2,169 380,625 (865) (138,081) (39.9%) (36.3%)
TOTAL 418,562 48,472,077 771,592 89,375,799 (353,030) (40,903,722) (45.8%) (45.8%)

Overall, Southwest has cut 37.7% of its available seats Year over Year, while American is down 44.5%, Delta cut 60.9% and United the most at 67.7% of its seats.  For July 2020, American and Southwest will be dwarfing their “legacy” brethren.  American is a staggering 135% larger airline in July 2020 than United and 47% larger airline than Delta.    Southwest is the largest domestic carrier in July 2020, and shrinking the least of the “legacy” airlines, which is of no surprise.  Southwest has historically used downturns in demand and the economy to take share from other airlines. That has been part of their warrior spirit for decades.

When you look at individual markets, you see some very interesting changes that, while likely short-lived, are not something I ever expected to see.  Markets that have historically been dominated by either Delta or United now are showing American being the largest airline in July.

Raleigh/Durham has been one of the more hotly contested airports in the country going back decades following American’s shutdown of their old RDU hub.  In July 2019, Delta was the largest airline at RDU with over 450k seats, followed by American at 335k and Southwest just behind at 302k.  July 2020 will now have American offering nearly 150k seats (still down 55%), but with Delta down 79.7%, they are offering just 92k seats in July while United is at just 47k seats (down 73.4%).  American went from 27% smaller than Delta in July 2019 to 62 percent larger than Delta in July 2020.

July 2020 vs July 2019 for Raleigh/Durham Domestic & International (Source: Diio Mi as of June 8, 2020)

Travel Period Jul 2020 Jul 2019 Diff Percent Diff
Mkt Al Flights Seats Flights Seats Flights Seats Flights Seats
AA 1,198 149,475 2,866 334,931 (1,668) (185,456) (58.2%) (55.4%)
WN 920 139,496 2,016 302,496 (1,096) (163,000) (54.4%) (53.9%)
DL 790 92,024 4,258 453,446 (3,468) (361,422) (81.4%) (79.7%)
UA 609 46,818 1,602 175,736 (993) (128,918) (62.0%) (73.4%)
B6 211 32,862 620 62,000 (409) (29,138) (66.0%) (47.0%)
F9 161 30,198 766 142,232 (605) (112,034) (79.0%) (78.8%)
NK 126 22,858 468 71,412 (342) (48,554) (73.1%) (68.0%)
AS 124 21,996 124 19,773 0 2,223 0.0% 11.2%
G4 18 3,186 54 9,204 (36) (6,018) (66.7%) (65.4%)
AC 0 0 310 15,500 (310) (15,500) (100.0%) (100.0%)
TOTAL 4,157 538,913 13,084 1,586,730 (8,927) (1,047,817) (68.2%) (66.0%)

This same scenario is playing out in both small airports (such as Rapid City, SD which American went from the 3rd largest carrier behind both Delta and United to July 2020 being nearly 80% larger than either Delta or United) and large airports (such as Boston where Delta used to be 38% larger than American and now in July 2020 American will be 58% larger than Delta in Boston).

What does this mean long-term?  American and Southwest, along with Ultra-Low Cost Carriers (ULCCs) such as Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant have taken a significantly less aggressive capacity cutting measure compared to Delta or United.  Historically the airlines were all about passenger share. This led to airlines being able to gain momentum to add more service, grab corporate sales contracts and improve profitability.  On the flip side, there is nothing in the history books that help us understand how COVID-19 will play out in the airline industry.  But for at least a month, American and Southwest will be massively larger than any other airline in the country and potentially set themselves up to ride that wave into August.  Or it backfires and it costs them more money flying substantially more flights than their brethren.  Only time will tell which strategy was “right”.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. United and Delta had significantly more international flights pre Covid-19. It doesn’t explain the massively less flights, but I would estimate it is 2/3. AA can do whatever they want. Does not mean it will result in passengers or profits. They are not the airline they were even 4 years ago, period.

  2. Not surprised about Delta. Considering their dysfunctional website and the impossibility of reaching any customer service representative, people are booking away from Delta. Without customers, no need to fly planes. Ergo: 80% capacity reductions.

  3. DL and UA feed their international service, now they have none. AA and SWA have a stronger US networks and point to point demand, not as reliant on the international feed so. . .AA and SWA are able to use plane / routes more efficiently. Why I believe that UA might be the loser when all is said and done.

  4. I think Delta and United are being smarter than American and Southwest…notice I am not saying that any airline is “smart”, just that Delta and UA are smarter. They will likely have to cancel less flights than AA, which means a lot to me as a customer who books a certain flight to minimize my dead time in airports and in the places I visit. Also, COVID 19 cases and hospitalizations are rising in many states and this is not just due to increased testing. This will sibyl cause non business travelers to rethink whether they want to get on an airplane.

  5. Does the analysis above reflect Deltas artificial load caps?

    Delta is limiting its first class cabins to 50% and its main cabins to 60% until September 30 to accommodate ‘social distancing protocols.’ So, in reality, Delta’s seat count may be drastically lower than discussed above. This is an insane and unsustainable strategy. Delta is currently turning away customers because its artificial seat caps have been reached in many markets.

    Ed Bastion has said Delta doesn’t want to chase market share because “it’s expensive and low margin.” Delta only wants premium and business customers and is willing to forgo lower margin customers as a result. Ed has also acknowledged it is forgoing customers due to Delta’s seat caps and its customer service has suffered over the past few months due to a hyper-focus on cost cutting voluntary leaves of absence. I have heard anecdotal accounts of 9 hour waits to speak to a Delta customer service agent.

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