With confidence rising that the end of the pandemic is growing closer, airlines are starting to revive flights that vanished last year as people canceled vacations and business trips.
Carriers are also dropping some changes and restrictions they made early in the pandemic, though masks are still required on all flights.
United Airlines will expand domestic flights that bypass its hub airports, bucking the traditional network strategy of big U.S. carriers and extending a push to entice more leisure travelers as demand recovers.
United will add 26 new nonstop routes from Midwest cities to vacation spots like Hilton Head, S.C.; Pensacola, Fla.; and Portland, Maine. The airline said Thursday that it is also restarting more than 20 domestic routes and will initiate new service between Orange County, Calif., and Honolulu.
The new service follows the November addition of direct flights to Florida from the East and Midwest that avoided the company’s hubs in Chicago and Newark, N.J.
The strategy reflects demand from vacationers for nonstop service that keeps them away from large, potentially congested airports amid the coronavirus pandemic, even as U.S. vaccination rates increase.
Faced with a dearth of business-passenger and international traffic, major airlines have also revamped large parts of their networks to serve leisure travelers.
Scheduled United flights to Latin America will exceed levels before the pandemic, compared with the same period in 2019, including more flights to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The carrier will resume flights between Chicago and Tokyo and between New York/Newark and Milan and Rome, and restart service between Chicago and Amsterdam.
While that means United will be operating only 52% of its overall schedule compared with May 2019, it’s significantly better than in May 2020, when flights were being operated at levels of about 14% of the same period the year before.
Using direct flights to bypass the biggest airports goes against the traditional approach of United, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, which typically strive to channel passengers to major hubs for connecting service. In normal times, those connections — typically processed through multiple daily “banks” of flights at such cities as Atlanta, Dallas and Denver — provide the bulk of the big airlines’ domestic profits.
Air traffic has been increasing, particularly with the start of the spring break season. Tuesday marked the 13th-straight day that more than 1 million passengers went through U.S. airport checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration. But traffic is still down about half from the same period in 2019.
Airlines have begun to loosen some restrictions, including opening up middle seats that had been blocked during the pandemic. The last holdout is Delta Air Lines, which has extended empty middle seats through April 30.
A search of Delta flights for May showed middle seats for sale. A Delta spokesman said the airline hasn’t decided whether to extend the middle-seat ban, and if it does, passengers in middle seats can be moved to window and aisle seats.
Southwest Airlines has gone back to boarding passengers in lots of 30. During the pandemic, it restricted boarding to 10 passengers at a time to create more space between them.
Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said the change went into effect on March 15. She said that when Southwest started boarding in smaller groups last May, masks weren’t as common, and people were just getting accustomed to social distancing in public places.
Many airlines are also bringing back snacks and drinks after halting service last year to limit contact among flight attendants and passengers. Some, but not all, have resumed selling alcohol — Southwest is still dry. Other airlines vary service by flight length and whether passengers are in first-class.
Information for this article was contributed by Michelle Chapman of The Associated Press, by Justin Bachman of Bloomberg News (WPNS) and by Kyle Arnold of The Dallas Morning News (TNS).