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For travelers who rely on smaller hubs, the cuts may raise concerns.
The move highlights the uncertainty some smaller, regional airfields face.
United Airlines has confirmed yet another wave of service cuts to small cities. The latest round, which takes effect on January 3, will result in United dropping eight more destinations in the Midwest and South.
The move is in addition to four routes United said it would cut just last week. And as with those other four communities that lost out, United serves all of them via contracts with regional carriers. The partner lines fly the routes under the United Express banner, which means that United puts its name on the regional lines’ planes and handles marketing and ticketing under the UA code.
Five of the cities losing United connections to Chicago O’Hare are:
And United’s Houston hub will lose service on United to these cities:
The flights are typically short hops on 50-seat regional jets, serviced by commuter partners that include Air Wisconsin, CommutAir, and SkyWest. None of the affected cities will lose service completely; all currently are served by regional flights on American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.
The airline said in a statement to the media that the continued cuts reflected the “long-term sustainability of several of our regional routes.” In effect, the carrier has determined these routes aren’t likely to generate enough traffic to justify continued jet service under the United brand. United said that it “will work with impacted customers to help them make alternate plans” if they are booked for flights after January 3.
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Since the start of the pandemic, major airlines have been tweaking their domestic schedules in response to fluctuating demand, which includes adjusting their arrangements with the regional carriers that operate feeder flights to their connecting hubs. And the country’s smallest communities continue to bear the brunt of these changes.
The above eight cuts are in addition to four routes that were dropped last week. SkyWest, one of six regional carrier partners that operates under the United Express banner, will discontinue service effective January 3 to two cities in South Dakota, Pierre and Watertown. In addition, it’s dropping Twin Falls, Idaho, from its route system on November 30.
Another airport, in Joplin, Missouri, is losing one United Express flight to Houston, but it will continue to be served by SkyWest on flights to Chicago and Denver.
These destinations are among the 100 cities that qualify for federal subsidies under the Essential Air Service (EAS) program because they would otherwise be in danger of losing all commercial flights, due to low travel volume.
The cities that SkyWest is exiting aren’t losing all airline service, a spokesperson for SkyWest tells AFAR. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which administers the EAS program, has given the contract to operate the former United Express routes to Denver Air Connection, another regional line.
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The EAS program dates back to the days when the federal government tightly regulated the commercial airline business, and although it was supposed to have been scaled back after the airlines were deregulated in 1978, it has survived in large part due to congressional support from lawmakers in rural areas. Some of these endangered airfields are more than several hours from the nearest alternative airport.
But aside from airports protected under the EAS program, other smaller and mid-size communities have also lost flights.
American Airlines last year dropped more than a dozen cities; as reported earlier, some cities were briefly without any scheduled service, including Dubuque, Iowa, and Greenville, North Carolina. However, some of this service was later restored.
What happens to some of these pint-sized airports if subsidies are eventually cut is of concern to backers of the EAS program. “This program has been in jeopardy for a number of years,” says Jessica Jennings, associate legislative director for transportation and infrastructure for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C. “But we believe it is very important. Some of these communities are so isolated that they could suffer serious consequences” if they were cut off, she added.
Another challenge is that all carriers, large and small, have been grappling with staffing shortages as travel rebounds from the pandemic slump.
The bottom line: The pandemic has further demonstrated just how vulnerable smaller airports are—especially when the airline industry is dominated by a few mega-carriers that often call the shots.
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