Airlines, including Spirit, are making routing changes to boost savings and lower operating costs. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

With Low Passenger Counts, Airlines Concocting Odd Routes

Passengers who fly Spirit Airlines from Pittsburgh to Orlando, Fla., will soon be making an unusual pit stop along the way.

Spirit is adjusting its Pittsburgh International Airport to Orlando International Airport route to include a stop at Arnold Palmer Airport in Latrobe, Pa., about 60 miles from PIT. Starting in May, the flight, which is scheduled to operate three times weekly, will originate in Orlando, land in Pittsburgh, stop in Latrobe, then return to Orlando.

The route change is one of many atypical adjustments airlines are making in response to record-low passenger traffic levels caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nicolás Mirman, a Dallas-based aviation consultant, said a few airlines are using similar routing methods.

“Some of the airlines have glued together these kind of triangular routes,” said Mirman. “This is something we haven’t seen here in the U.S. since the 1990s.”

Guided by federal funding

As part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act package passed by Congress in March, many airlines applied for a payroll assistance program. As of April 25, the U.S. Treasury Department has distributed $12.4 billion to nearly 100 carriers, including 10 major airlines.

In order to accept the federal aid, airlines must adhere to specific guidelines, including retaining employees through the end of September and maintaining a percentage of flights at airports the airlines currently serve.

Airlines must maintain a minimum number of weekly flights served, based on their schedules prior to the drop in travel demand due to coronavirus.

Because of these mandates, a handful of carriers like Spirit are making routing changes to boost savings and lower operating costs. Ultimately, by including an extra stop, airlines can increase the number of passengers on a given flight while lowering total costs, explained David Bental, an aviation expert with more than 25 years of industry experience.

“In the end, the airlines are really just trying to minimize expenses,” Bental said. “The industry used to do these types of flights a lot. They were called ‘round-robin’ or ‘open-jaw’ flights. Now you barely find any of these on a schedule.”

Data published by Routes Online last week shows Spirit will operate 12 routes, including PIT to MCO, using the triangular routing system. Other examples include the airline flying from Dallas Fort-Worth to Phoenix to Las Vegas and back to Dallas, and from Fort Lauderdale International Airport (FLL) to Raleigh-Durham to Charlotte before returning to FLL.

Spirit isn’t the only airline adding short connections to its existing nonstop flights. Other airlines looking to operate round-robin flights include Alaska Airlines, JetBlue and Frontier Airlines.

For example, Alaska Airlines’ usual nonstop between PIT and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport now departs from Baltimore-Washington International Airport and touches down in Pittsburgh before continuing to Seattle.

And in May, some of Frontier Airlines’ flights from Orlando to Pittsburgh will include a stop in Philadelphia.

Bental noted that the airlines operating open-jaw flights are the ones covering cities in which they operated very limited schedules. Major airlines like American, United and Delta are relying on their hub-and-spoke system to maximize load factors on flights.

While round-robin flights may be a solution for a few carriers right now, it’s likely only a temporary fix.

“It’s generally not an efficient way of doing business,” Bental said. “If you have decent demand from both cities, you’re better off flying nonstop to both of them. It’s not a trend and I don’t expect it to become a trend.”

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