With most travelers still hunkered down, the flight schedule keeps shrinking at San Antonio International Airport — yet budget carrier Allegiant Air is adding a route.
By Randy Diamond
San Antonio Express-News
May 7, 2020
But it took an order from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the airline, which has not operated out of San Antonio for more than a month, to do it.
The carrier, which received about $172 million in federal stimulus money, had asked the department for exemptions from requirements to provide service to San Antonio and other markets in the U.S. DOT officials said no to the San Antonio request.
Up to $50 billion in grants and loans are available to airlines under the stimulus program — on the condition that they keep workers on the payroll and continue flying, even if it is at a reduced frequency.
In an April 29 order, the DOT allowed Allegiant to reduce service at some airports from three times a week to once a week while turning down the carrier’s request to pull out of San Antonio.
The head of a consumer travel organization applauded the decision regarding San Antonio.
“We recognize and are concerned that the entire travel industry, especially the airlines, are facing an extremely serious, unprecedented period and need assistance,” said Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now. “At the same time, in exchange for generous taxpayer-funded support, we thank the DOT for making sure that the commitments that go with billions in aid are honored by airlines.”
The order requires Allegiant to resume service within seven days of receiving federal funds, according to a DOT official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It’s unclear if the airline has received its stimulus money, which was awarded by the DOT on April 21. The airline’s schedule shows no service until June to either of its former designations from San Antonio, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.
Though Allegiant had requested the San Antonio exception until Sept 30, officials have maintained they planned to offer service here in June, July and August.
Allegiant’s ticket counter at San Antonio International Airport remained closed this week.
Airline spokeswoman Sonya Padgett said in an email that the details for May flights from San Antonio International are being finalized and that tickets would be on sale soon. She did not comment on the DOT decision or whether the airline had received the stimulus funding.
San Antonio International has new nonstop service to Albuquerque, N.M., also because of stimulus funding. Alaska Airlines had eliminated its two nonstop flights from San Antonio to Seattle, but it now flies to Seattle once a day, but with a stopover in New Mexico.
Airline analysts say that larger airlines are eliminating some nonstops and flying so-called “milk runs” that stop in several cities as a way to meet requirements of the program, part of the federal CARES Act.
The act requires airlines to serve all cities they served during the week of February 29, but not necessarily through nonstop service. Saddled with nearly empty planes, carriers save money by using one plane to serve multiple cities, the analysts say.
An Alaska spokesperson said stopping at multiple designations “streamlines the use of our resources — aircraft, fuel and crews.”
Alaska is receiving nearly $1 billion in stimulus money.
In the last month, other daily nonstop flights that have disappeared from the schedule at San Antonio International include service to Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Nashville.
Flight departures from San Antonio in May have shrunk to around 30 a day, down from an average 120 departures a day just two months ago, show airline schedules.
Passengers can still travel to multiple U.S. designations from San Antonio but must change flights in hubs such as American Airlines’ at Dallas/Fort International Airport or United’s George Bush InterContinental Airport hub in Houston.
The four biggest airlines at San Antonio International — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines — each received billions of dollars in stimulus funding to help maintain the air system in the U.S.
The stimulus program, however, has only minimum service requirements. At San Antonio International, the four airlines each have to fly five flights a week, a requirement they are easily meeting — even though they have slashed service.
Southwest Airlines, which had 48 flights a day from San Antonio International in March, more than any other airline, is down to 13 flights a day.
A Southwest ticket agent at San Antonio International, who asked not to be identified, said some flights have as little as five or six people aboard. He said that on a few flights in the last few days there had been an uptick of passengers, as many as 50. The agent said this has occurred as stay-at-home orders have been lifted in Texas and other states over the last week.
Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said in a statement that the flight reductions stem from the fact that the carrier “is right-sizing our operations to be closer in-line with current demand. For our customers, some previously nonstop routes might now require a stop before reaching their destinations.”
He said the airline intends for those “changes to be temporary.”
Analysts say demand to air travel may not pick up again until 2021 because of fears of coronavirus.
Passengers going through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at San Antonio International have been as low as 300 a day in May.