The coronavirus pandemic is proving the perfect catalyst for some dramatic changes in U.S. airline maps.
Southwest Airlines has unveiled 12 new cities and counting since the crisis began. United Airlines is returning to New York’s JFK airport. And JetBlue Airways, fresh off adding more than 60 new routes and moving its Long Beach base to Los Angeles, is optimistic about its prospects in Raleigh-Durham.
“Raleigh is attracting our interest and our capacity because it’s performing well,” JetBlue head of revenue and planning Scott Laurence told Airline Weekly in an interview. “It’s a standout in a successful region.”
The Raleigh area has anecdotally emerged as a pandemic destination. Moving company United Van Lines named the region as one of the top three places that people were moving to from May to September this year. And Airbnb named Durham among one of the top destinations for longer than two-week stays among its users looking into 2021.
And any pandemic growth follows a decade where the population of the Raleigh metropolitan area grew by nearly 340,000 people to just over two million from 2010 to 2019, according to U.S. Census estimates.
“The market is still trucking along like nothing happened,” said Kenneth Strickland, director of air service development at the Raleigh-Durham airport, said of the region’s continued growth during the pandemic in an interview. The only thing that has not kept pace are flights.
JetBlue will add seven new routes between Raleigh and Austin, Jacksonville, Fla., Las Vegas, Newark, Orlando, San Francisco and Tampa in February and March. They follow the addition of five new routes to Cancun, Fort Myers, Los Angeles, Montego Bay and San Juan this month.
The New York-based carrier also unveiled plans to add Key West and Miami in Florida, Guatemala City and Los Cabos, Mexico, to its map this spring.
The additions come amid a historic cull in air service during the crisis. In the U.S., passenger traffic down 72% on a 50% drop in capacity during the week ending December 15 compared to 2019, according to the latest data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A).
An uptick in air travel is expect around Christmas and New Year’s, even as public health officials warn Americans against small holiday gatherings. However, this bump is not expected to continue into January and February — slow months for airlines even in normal times — with Skift Research analyst Haixia Wang forecasting a “dark winter” for the travel industry.
In Raleigh, airline capacity is scheduled to decrease roughly 61% in December, according to Cirium schedule data. This is 20 points higher than the national drop for the month.
The capacity cuts at the airport are largely the result of Delta Air Lines’ decision to slash flying at its focus cities. Capacity at its Raleigh focus city — its largest such base by departures prior to Covid-19 — is down roughly 57% in both December and January, according to Cirium. For comparison, system capacity will be down just 39 percent over the same period.
The Atlanta-based carrier, like its competitors American Airlines and United, have focused on resuming flights first through their large connecting hubs — think Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth — rather than at smaller bases. This strategy has allowed them to continue flights to the majority of their destinations albeit with a connection rather than a nonstop option.
“We’re committed to New York, we’re committed to Boston, we’re committed to LA, Seattle, Austin [and] Raleigh,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told staff in June. “All the places we’ve made big investments in, we’re coming back.”
Delta executives did not — and have not — provided a timeline for when Raleigh flights would return except to say that it will be later in the recovery. The airline anticipates a two- to three-year recovery to 2019 system flying levels.
“This is not about market share movement,” Laurence said when asked whether JetBlue’s additions were in response to Delta’s pullback. “This is about what we do makes sense for us in the short term and hopefully for the long term.”
And that is the goal of airlines in expansion mode during the pandemic share. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has said the same of the Dallas-based carrier’s expansion, saying in September that any destination added “can’t just be a pandemic play” but has to work long term.
JetBlue’s long term plans in Raleigh are, as they say, up in the air. Geographically, the airport could be a nice Mid-Atlantic complement to its bases in Boston, Fort Lauderdale, New York and Orlando. But Laurence was mum on whether the destination could become one of the airline’s focus cities, which involves opening a crew base and making other investments.
“I want to get solidly into the recovery before we talk about focus cities and what comes next,” he said. However, he did suggest that more new routes could be coming to the North Carolina airport in the new year.
JetBlue is conservative about the recovery in the first half of 2021 with the expectation that air travel will remain down significantly from 2019, said Laurence. However, it is optimistic about the recovery in the second half of the year, especially with the beginning of a national mass vaccination program earlier in December.
That bodes well for the carrier’s plans. JetBlue aims to launch its first-ever transatlantic flights to London from both Boston and New York by end-2021. While these are likely to go off regardless of how the pandemic progresses, a strong travel recovery would bode well for the new flights.
Whatever happens with JetBlue in Raleigh the city does not lack in airline history. American maintained a hub there from 1987 through 1995 when it passed the mantle to the second incarnation of Midway Airlines. American briefly came back with something like a focus city in the mid-2000s before Delta took the top spot at the airport in 2011.
But the Raleigh-Durham airport is not placing all its eggs in one basket. It is having conversations with carriers other than Delta and JetBlue about new flights as well, said Strickland.
“My goal for us is to return to an airport with a diverse set of carriers,” he said of the airport’s recovery. But if JetBlue wants to establish a focus city, “we welcome them.”