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Airlines trimming their Q4 flights. Here’s what’s happening at Jacksonville International Airport (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Business Journal) — Even as the Covid-19 Delta variant’s grip on the economy loosened, airlines continued to trim their domestic flight schedules for the fourth quarter, with Jacksonville International Airport seeing the number of scheduled flights for the final three months of the year dropping 9% since the summer.

According to data from Cirium, a provider of aviation and travel data analytics, total scheduled flight operations for the fourth quarter fell 6% nationally between Aug. 30 and Oct. 25. The cuts have continued into the fall, with scheduled operations down 1.8% between Oct. 8 and Oct. 25.

At the beginning of August, airlines had planned to have 8,322 flights originating in Jacksonville in October, November and December. Instead, a total of 4,990 flights took off in October and November and 2,572 are planned for December, for a total of 7,576 flights.

Just over the past month, the number of flights planned to leave Jacksonville in December has fallen by 36 flights representing 3,985 seats.

The national trend of reduced operations came after airlines previously slashed schedules for the entire second half of 2021 due to the impact of the Delta variant, which cut into the comeback of business travel.

In addition to pre-emptive schedule reductions, flight cancellations have also been in the headlines in recent weeks, with Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV) canceling hundreds of flights in mid-October and American Airlines Inc. (Nasdaq: AAL) doing the same over Halloween weekend. Staffing and weather are among the factors cited for those cancellations.

Inside the national numbers

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport saw the largest reduction in fourth-quarter flight operations of any airport, with a 12.7% decline since Aug. 30, according to Cirium’s data.

Among major hubs, the biggest drops in flights came at United Airlines Holding Inc. hubs (Nasdaq: UAL) Washington Dulles International Airport (down 10.5%), Chicago O’Hare International Airport (down 10.5%) and San Francisco International Airport (down 8.9%), as well as American Airlines hub Philadelphia International Airport (down 10.4%)

Destinations with an abundance of sun and fun generally held their flight operations at the strongest pace — Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was the only airport among the nation’s 50 busiest that didn’t experience a decline in scheduled fourth-quarter flight operations between Aug. 30 and Oct. 25.

It was joined by Southwest Florida International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Austin–Bergstrom International Airport and John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, as well as several major hubs as airports that retained the most fourth-quarter flights.

New York’s JFK International Airport (down 0.6%), Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan International (down 3%), Miami International Airport (down 3%) and Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (down 3.2%) were the major hubs that held on to the most flights, although all saw cuts since Aug. 30.

Airline execs foresee brighter days

In his airline’s earnings call for the third quarter, Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Ed Bastian said the company (NYSE: DAL) sees a number of encouraging trends on the horizon as Covid-19 cases ease.

“Business travel has picked up over the last month, with volumes now reaching the highest level we’ve seen in the recovery. In the last week, our domestic business volume was close to 50% restored,” he said. “We expect continued improvement as offices reopen at the start of the new year, and we anticipate meaningful acceleration in business travel starting at that point.”

Bastian said corporate surveys have shown 90% of respondents expect travel volumes in the fourth quarter to be the same or outpace the third quarter.

Delta President Glen Hauenstein said the airline expects capacity in the fourth quarter to be 80% of 2019 levels, with the airline having the ability to achieve its 2019 capacity levels by the second half of 2022.

United Airlines is seeing headwinds but expects capacity to improve as the fourth quarter progresses, particularly in December.

“Though the Delta variant’s impact on leisure demand is now gone, its impact on business travel and yield in the fourth quarter continues,” said Andrew Nocella, United executive vice president and chief commercial officer.

For the entire fourth quarter, Nocella said United expects capacity to be down 23%. In December, capacity is expected to be just 9% off 2019 numbers, with the airline expecting a strong holiday season.

Photo courtesy of Jacksonville International Airport