With Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways still flying fewer than 10% of their pre-coronavirus flight levels, another U.S. carrier — Allegiant Air — is operating at more than half of its 2019 level, according to an exclusive analysis of flight schedules and operations for Here & Now.
Headquartered near Las Vegas, Allegiant is also alone among the 11 largest U.S. airlines in encouraging, but not requiring, passengers to wear face coverings.
First, the data: For the seven days ending May 15, Allegiant flew 53% as many flights as it flew for the same period in 2019, according to an analysis by Cirium, a data and analytics company.
The 53% figure compares to an average of 24% for all U.S. airlines and 20% for all global airlines for the same seven-day period.
This is the first published analysis to overlay airline schedules with flight operations, enabling the best like-for-like comparison of flights actually being operated under major airline brands.
Other analyses have either looked at only flight schedules, which fail to account for some airlines canceling more scheduled flights at the last minute, or only flight operations, which can fail to identify whether flights scheduled to be operated by regional airlines like SkyWest Airlines were actually canceled by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines or United Airlines.
In many regards, the airlines at the top and bottom of the list closely resemble each other: low-frills, “ultra-low-cost” Allegiant and Spirit were the first two U.S. airlines to charge for even carry-on bags in addition to checked bags. So why the disparity?
Spirit specializes in connecting large cities — its busiest route in 2019 was New York LaGuardia Airport to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Allegiant’s top route was Asheville, North Carolina, to Fort Lauderdale.
Even more notably, Allegiant is often the cheapest and only nonstop option from dozens of U.S. heartland cities like Wichita, Kansas, and Fargo, North Dakota, to leisure destinations like Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas.
Upmarket JetBlue’s inflight product — complete with lots of legroom, live seatback TV, free internet and free snacks — looks nothing like Spirit’s.
But its route network looks a lot like Spirit’s: Its biggest hubs are in New York and Boston, and its top markets either run up and down the East Coast or connect the two coasts. These are the same areas of the country that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, which may account for why passengers in these cities are being more cautious and flying less.
Allegiant, in other words, is more of a “heartland airline,” responding to a difference in travel demand that seems to mirror both geography and politics.
In a call with investors earlier this month, Allegiant said it has surveyed its customers and found their personal financial situations have stayed the same or gotten better since the pandemic began, possibly because the shutdowns in the center of the country have been less severe than on the coasts.
And in terms of whether to optimize for public health or the economy, the airline’s chief marketing officer Scott DeAngelo says, “The nation as a whole has been 50/50. The Allegiant customer base has been 75/25” in favor of the economy.
This divergence in regional views of COVID-19 may also explain why Allegiant is the sole major U.S. airline that does not require passengers to wear a mask or other face covering on board.
JetBlue announced last month it would become the first U.S. airline with such a requirement, and within days, nearly all other airlines matched the move.
Allegiant took a different route and is instead providing “personal health and safety kits” to all customers which include items like hand sanitizer. But unlike other airlines, masks are encouraged but not required.
That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer passengers are wearing masks on Allegiant voluntarily. What it does mean is that Allegiant is betting encouragement will have a better outcome than a mandate.
This segment aired on May 19, 2020.