In a backlash against the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) show cause order (SCO), filed on March 31, 2020, which proposes that those passenger air carriers slated to receive financial assistance from the federal government under the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act should be obligated to maintain minimum service levels to certain U.S. destinations, with some exceptions.
The CARES Act, which has allotted $50 billion to buoy airlines and was signed into law on March 27, authorizes the DOT to require airlines to, “maintain scheduled air transportation service as the Secretary deems necessary to ensure services to any point served by that carrier before March 1, 2020.”
The proposal sets forth that these minimum service levels would be determined based upon the airlines’ schedules as they were being operated on March 1, 2020, prior to the escalation of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S.
Specifically, if the airline ran at least one flight to a particular destination at least five days per week, this would require that it continue providing service with at least one flight. five days per week. Routes that received service less frequently than five days per week would need to be served by a minimum of one flight, one day out of the week.
USA Today explained that air carriers will also be allowed to consolidate service to one regional hub from multiple hubs as long as they meet the minimum frequency requirements, and those serving multiple airports within a single metro area may consolidate their flights into one airport in meeting their obligation.
USA Today also reported that major commercial carriers have mostly praised the idea. Southwest, for instance, said that it, “applauds the DOT for its thoughtfulness and expertise in crafting this order.” But, some budget carriers and smaller airlines aren’t on board with the parameters being set forth.
Frontier Airlines registered a response in which it said that the blanket imposition of such minimum service standards ignores the seasonal nature of low-cost carriers’ schedules. Frontier said the SCO, “ignores the rapidly changing, unprecedented, and precipitous drop in passenger traffic resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the state, city, and local travel prohibitions and shelter-in-place orders.”
Frontier argued that enforcing the “one-size-fits-all” standards would defeat the very purpose of the federal stimulus plan, constituting a disaster for no-frills and compelling them to, “operate empty flights regardless of passenger demand.” It submitted that such requirements, “undermine the efforts of airlines to preserve cash during this unprecedented time by requiring the provision of empty flights for no reasonable public benefit.”
And Frontier isn’t alone. Allegiant Air, based in the tourism hub of Las Vegas, has argued that it should retain the right to cancel flights that clearly won’t generate adequate passenger traffic. Formally commenting on the proposal, Allegiant said, “Never in the history of air transportation has the U.S air carrier industry been more in need of flexibility than it is now. Flexibility means survival for individual carriers.”
Regional carrier SkyWest Airlines has already applied for an exemption, while smaller carriers Advanced Air and Tradewind Aviation, plus the National Air Carrier Association and Alaska Air Carrier Association have all lodged formal objections to the proposal.
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