May 12, 2020 / 7:40 PM / 16 days ago

U.S. air travel fell 51% in March amid coronavirus pandemic

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A lone flight attendant waits for a ride outside Washington's Reagan National airport as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to keep airline travel at minimal levels, in Washington, U.S. April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. airlines carried 51% fewer passengers in March amid the massive coronavirus pandemic travel collapse to the lowest air travel level in nearly two decades, the U.S. Transportation Department said Tuesday.

Airlines carried slightly more total, domestic and international passengers in March 2020 than in September 2001, the month of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. In total, airlines carried 38.7 million passengers in March, down 51% from March 2019. Prior to March, air travel had risen for 29 consecutive months year-over-year dating back to October 2017.

Since then, U.S. air travel has fallen further, down about 94%, while total flights are down by about 70%.

In April, the U.S. Treasury approved $25 billion (20.4 billion pounds) in cash grants to airlines in exchange for a ban on paying dividends, stock buybacks, limits on executive compensation and a bar on laying off employees through Sept. 30.

In March, domestic travel fell to 34.1 million passengers, from March 2019 when airlines carried 69.6 million passengers International travel fell from 9.9 million in March 2019 to 4.6 million passengers in March as the administration imposed restrictions on travelers from China and Europe.

Last week, Airlines for America, a trade group representing the largest U.S. airlines including Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), American Airlines (AAL.O), Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) and United Airlines (UAL.O), said U.S. airlines are collectively burning more than $10 billion in cash per month and averaging fewer than two dozen passengers per domestic flight.

Even after grounding more than 3,000 aircraft, or nearly 50% of the active U.S. fleet, the group said its member carriers, which include the four largest U.S. airlines, are averaging just 17 passengers per domestic flight and 29 passengers per international flight.

Net booked passengers have fallen by nearly 100% year-on-year, the group said.

U.S. airlines have canceled hundreds of thousands of flights, including 80% or more of scheduled flights into June. They are conducting additional cleaning measures and requiring all passengers to wear facial coverings to try to restore consumer confidence in air travel.

Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Franklin Paul and Nick Zieminski

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