A United Airlines taxi at Newark International Airport, in Newark, New Jersey, on January 11, 2023.
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NEWARK, N.J. — Faced with crowded airports, rising costs, a shortage of pilots, and a resurgence in travel demand, airlines are increasingly turning to the same remedy: bigger planes that hold more passengers.
The 11 largest US airlines averaged more than 153 seats last year on domestic flights, up from about 141 in 2017, according to flight data firm Cirium. In April, US airlines took 0.6% more seats into their domestic schedules than in the same month in 2019, despite operating 10.6% fewer flights.
The trend toward larger planes, part of a strategy known in the industry as “upgrading,” means airlines can sell more seats per flight and settle for fewer planes, which are in short supply. While more passengers per plane lowers unit costs for airlines, that means fewer flight options for consumers.
For example, United Airlines It said its flights have 20 more seats per flight in its full network than in 2019.
Rodney Cox, United’s vice president of airport operations at the carrier’s hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, told CNBC last month that it’s difficult to increase the number of flights to and from the airport, which is one of the largest in the country. not crowded.
“The way we continue to grow our model and grow the business is to upgrade our flights,” he said.
United said last month it would fly about 3,600 domestic routes using wide-body aircraft. The airline has also designated the 777, the largest plane in its fleet with 364 seats, to fly between major hubs and Orlando, Florida, during spring break, a spokeswoman said.
Early in the Covid pandemic, US airlines reallocated their largest planes to domestic routes when international travel was hampered by the crisis and travel restrictions. Now that international flights are starting to pick up, the competition for those planes is even more intense.
Cox noted that there are limits to the number of flights an airline can increase, especially with its larger aircraft.
“Not every gate is equal,” he said. “You can’t put on a wide body [airplane] on each gate.
The trend towards larger planes It is becoming increasingly important during what airline executives expect to be a busy spring and summer with shortages of pilots, air traffic controllers and new aircraft.
United Cox vice president said keeping the operation running smoothly in busy Newark is key. If the planes don’t take off fast enough on schedule, he said, because of the limited number of gates, “you’ll see it turn into a parking lot.”
Airlines and federal officials have agreed to curtail flights in hopes of avoiding a repeat of this summer’s flight cuts and schedule delays at the busy airports serving New York and Washington, DC.
Last month, the FAA said it would allow airlines to cut back flights at airports serving New York City and Washington’s Reagan National Airport as a way to avoid disruptions.
American Airlines He said that in response to the FAA-sanctioned slot waivers, he will temporarily reduce frequencies on select routes from LaGuardia Airport and Newark this summer.
“We are proactively engaging with affected customers to provide alternative travel arrangements,” a spokeswoman said. The airline plans to reallocate aircraft from the reduced frequencies to routes at its hubs at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Chicago O’Hare and Philadelphia International Airport.
United Airlines said in a statement Thursday that in response to the FAA’s plan, it will reduce peak daily flights in New York and Newark from 438 to 408 and reduce service from the New York area to Washington, DC. The company said it still plans to operate 5% more seats at those airports compared to the same month in 2019 and expected less than 2% of customers to be affected.
Delta AirlinesThe chief operating officer also told the FAA that the airline intends to obtain waivers that would allow it to reduce flights.
The FAA said it expects “airlines to take measures to minimize the impacts on passengers, including operating larger planes to carry more passengers and ensuring that passengers are fully informed of any potential disruptions.”
Even so, some airlines are facing challenges in switching to larger planes. JetBlue Airwaysfor example, all narrow-body aircraft operate.
“We don’t have 70 seats that we can turn into 150[-seater]Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue, told CNBC last week. And even the airlines that do, you’re just taking seats from somewhere else. “
In addition, the airline does not contract with regional carriers for as many of its flights as the major US carriers.
“This will have a very significant financial impact on JetBlue and our customers,” Hayes said of the reduced capacity. “Small communities always have a disproportionate impact on that.”
To help increase the number of passengers per plane, United and other network carriers are also working to reduce their reliance on regional feeder airlines, where pilot shortages are acute and unit costs high.
Delta said 70% of its domestic flights this year are operated by the main carrier, up from 55% in 2019. Seats per flight increased by 15 from 2019, a spokesperson told CNBC.
Delta has also shifted from regional to mainline aircraft such as Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s on traditional business routes such as Boston to Chicago, Seattle to San Francisco, and Los Angeles to Las Vegas. A spokesperson said it has completely canceled regional flights to Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio, Texas, and replaced them with larger ones.
Some major airlines have suspended services to some smaller airports, citing a shortage of pilots for regional airlines. America last year left cities including Dubuque, Iowa, and United recently said it would stop flying to Erie, Pennsylvania, in June. Delta also said it would pause service at State College, Pennsylvania, and La Crosse, Wisconsin that month.
Faye Malarkey said reducing regional flights instead of mainline flights “could cut departure options in half for travelers, meaning long layovers, longer journey time and cost burdens, but it could also mean that one city it previously served could not be served.” “. Black, president and CEO of the Regional Airline Association.
“This is additional harm to small communities who don’t have passengers to fill on larger planes,” she said.
– CNBC Gabriel Curtis Contribute to this article.