Routes signals the rebound

posted on 5th June 2023
Routes signals the rebound

Routes Americas descended on Chicago in March as the Windy City hosted a record-breaking event. Mike Miller was there for ARGS.

The largest route development event in the Americas visited Chicago during 21-23 March, marked by the great optimism of a rebounded airline industry and a split decision about whether the large JetBlue–Spirit Airlines merger would ever be approved by a sceptical US Government.
Overlooking the Chicago River that bisects downtown, Routes Americas 2023 showcased Chicago’s stunning skyline. Of all the data, rankings and positioning, one number stood out: 940 attendees, a record for the show.
The groundswell of new attendees made the event blossom and Chicago rose to the challenge with local food and a DJ who could have been plucked straight from a glitzy party in Ibiza or Las Vegas. “We have a record number of meetings at Routes Americas – 3,000,” said Director Events, Routes, Steven Small.
Discussions of international travel rebound focused mostly on robust transatlantic travel, with continued questions about how quickly China and Asia flights would return to full transpacific strength. The large US airports with the slowest overall recovery remain Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO), each of which had depressed traffic down 29% in 2022 compared to 2019 as they wait for more Asia flights to resume.
Chicago’s two airports, O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW), have experienced significant growth with more expected to come. O’Hare now boasts 218 destinations and a US$1.5 billion Terminal 5 expansion project. Midway, with its smaller downtown footprint, has realised its largest investment in 20 years, transforming the once ageing terminal into a world-class option.
The potential JetBlue–Spirit merger drew varied opinions about the likelihood of success during a pro-competition US government under President Joe Biden. The US Department of Justice is currently suing JetBlue to block the merger. A similar action occurred with the American Airlines–US Airways merger in 2012, which was eventually approved.
While some Routes Americas attendees expected the JetBlue–Spirit merger to succeed, many agreed it was going to take “at least another year” or “forever” to gain approval – if ever. No attendee we spoke with wanted to go on the record about the merger.

Rebounding destinations
The markets that have revived fastest in the US have been Florida and Texas. Miami experienced a surge of new domestic flights, mostly at Spirit Airlines’ new hub, and a 40% domestic traffic increase. Second was Austin, Texas – up 32.4% over 2019 due to the decision by American Airlines to add 100 flights to the Texas capital city. Several metrics show Austin is the city in the US that is seeing the highest growth.
Of the top 30 US airports, only 11 saw domestic seat capacity grow compared to 2019, and the remaining 19 are slowly reaching the traffic levels they achieved four years ago. Only 44 of the top 100 US airports have more airline capacity than in 2019.
The uneven recovery comes amidst a continued pilot shortage, which has led to the elimination of regional airline flights to 300 smaller and mid-sized cities. The Regional Airline Association said there were still roughly 500 small jets parked at the start of 2023, and more than a dozen small US cities have lost air service altogether.
On a macro level, there were 947 million seats available on US airlines in 2022 compared to 1 billion seats in 2019 – or, a 5.7% overall decline in US capacity over the last three years.

Routes Awards
Surprises abounded among the Routes Americas Awards. The small airport of Tulsa, the 93rd-largest US airport with 0.6% fewer seats in 2022 vs 2019, was the Overall Winner and Under 4 Million Passengers winner.
In addition, San Francisco won the Over 20 Million Passengers category despite its underwhelming capacity return. West Coast airports, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle, all remain well under domestic capacity levels compared to 2019.

2023 Routes Americas Winners

Overall Winner
Tulsa International Airport

Under 4 Million Passengers
Tulsa International Airport

4-20 Million Passengers
Vancouver International Airport

Over 20 Million Passengers
San Francisco International Airport

Visit Orlando

American Airlines