A United Airlines plane taxis at Newark International Airport on January 11, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey.
Kena Betancur AFP | Getty Images
NEWARK, New Jersey — With airport congestion, rising costs, a pilot shortage and a rebound in travel demand, airlines are increasingly turning to the same tool: larger planes that can accommodate more passengers.
Flights operated by the 11 largest US airlines averaged more than 153 seats on domestic routes last year, up from an average of nearly 141 seats in 2017, according to aeronautical data company Cirium. In April, US airlines have 0.6% more seats on their domestic schedules compared to the same month in 2019, despite operating 10.6% fewer flights.
The trend toward larger aircraft, part of a strategy known in the industry as “upgauging,” means airlines can sell more seats on each flight and make do with fewer planes that are in short supply. While more passengers per plane lowers an airline’s unit cost, it means fewer flight options for consumers.
For example, United Airlines said its flights across its network have 20 more seats per departure than in 2019.
Rodney Cox, United’s vice president of airport operations at the airline’s hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, told CNBC last month that increasing the number of flights to and from the airport, one of the national ones, is difficult most overloaded.
“The way we continue to build our model and grow the business is to improve our flights,” he said.
Last month, United said it would fly about 3,600 domestic routes on widebody aircraft. The airline also dedicated 777, the largest aircraft in its fleet at 364 seats, to fly between major hubs and Orlando, Fla., during spring break, a spokeswoman said.
At the start of the Covid pandemic, US airlines reallocated their largest jets to domestic routes as international travel was hampered by the crisis and travel restrictions. Now that international travel is picking up again, competition for these planes has become fiercer.
And Cox noted that there is a limit to the number of flights the airline can increase, particularly on its largest planes.
“Not every goal is the same,” he said. “You can’t use a widebody [airplane] at every single goal.”
The trend towards larger aircraft becomes increasingly important in a busy spring and summer with shortages of pilots, air traffic controllers and new aircraft.
Keeping operations running smoothly in crowded Newark is critical, said United Vice President Cox. If planes don’t take off fast enough due to the limited number of gates, “you’ll see it turn into a parking lot,” he said.
Airlines and federal officials have agreed to cut flights in hopes of avoiding a repeat of flight cuts and schedule delays this summer at busy airports serving New York and Washington, DC
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would allow airlines to cut flights at airports serving New York City and Washington’s Reagan National Airport to avoid disruption.
American Airlines said it will temporarily reduce frequencies on select routes from LaGuardia Airport and Newark in response to the FAA’s slot waiver this summer.
“We are proactively reaching out to affected customers to offer alternative travel arrangements,” said a spokeswoman. The airline plans to reallocate aircraft from 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 plan, it would reduce daily peak departures in New York and Newark from 438 to 408 and reduce service from the New York area to Washington DC. The airline said it still plans to operate 5% more seats at those airports than in the same month of 2019 and that less than 2% of customers would be affected.
Delta AirlinesThe operations manager has also told the FAA that the airline intends to seek waivers that would allow it to reduce flights.
The FAA expects that “airlines will take steps to minimize the impact on passengers, including operating larger aircraft to carry more passengers and ensuring passengers are fully aware of potential disruptions.”
However, some airlines face the challenge of migrating to larger aircraft. JetBlue Airwaysoperates all narrow-body jets, for example.
“We don’t have a 70 seater that we could turn into a 150[-seater]JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told CNBC last week.
Also, the airline doesn’t contract with regional carriers for many of its flights like larger U.S. carriers do.
“This will have a significant financial impact on JetBlue and our customers,” Hayes said of the reduced capacity. “It’s always the smaller municipalities that are hit disproportionately hard.”
To increase the number of passengers per plane, United and other network airlines are also reducing their reliance on regional feeder airlines where pilot shortages are most acute and unit costs are high.
Delta said 70% of its domestic flights will be operated by the main carrier this year, up from 55% in 2019. Seats per departure are up 15 from 2019, a spokesman told CNBC.
Delta has also switched from regional jets to commercial airliners like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 on traditional business routes like Boston to Chicago, Seattle to San Francisco, and Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It has completely eliminated regional jets in Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio, Texas and replaced them with larger planes, a spokesman said.
Some major airlines have suspended flights to some small airports, citing a shortage of pilots on regional airlines. American left cities like Dubuque, Iowa last year, and United last said it would stop flying to Erie, Pennsylvania in June. Delta also said it would temporarily suspend service to State College, Pennsylvania, and to La Crosse, Wisconsin this month.
Reducing regional instead of long-distance flights “could cut traveler departure options in half, meaning long layovers and increased travel times and cost burdens, but it could also mean a previously served city becomes unavailable,” said Faye Malarkey Black, President and CEO of the Regional Airline Association.
“This is further damage to small communities that don’t have the passengers to fill larger planes,” she said.
— CNBC’s Gabriel Cortes contributed to this article.