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Airlines Add Routes in Fight for Americans Ready to Travel Again

Airlines are adding scores of U.S. routes as they battle for travelers looking to move around the country after being cooped up because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent weeks, airlines have announced plans to fly more than 150 new domestic routes as they try to ferret out pockets of demand and stimulate new markets by connecting pairs of cities that previously hadn’t been easy to travel between. The moves come as business travel remains low and many international borders are still closed.

United Airlines Holdings Inc., for instance, is doubling down on a strategy it first tried out last summer, offering direct links between smaller Midwestern cities and popular vacation destinations. Starting in late May, the airline plans to use 50-seat planes to offer nonstop flights between places such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee to Hilton Head, S.C., Pensacola, Fla., and Portland, Maine.

The airline on Thursday announced more than two dozen new domestic routes for summer, such as nonstop service between Houston and Kalispell, Mont., near Glacier National Park, and between Chicago and Nantucket, Mass. Overall, United will operate 52% as much flying capacity as it did in 2019, including international routes. Last year, by contrast, United’s May schedule was 14% of 2019 levels. Ankit Gupta, vice president of United’s domestic network planning and scheduling, said bookings have been gaining steam. Earlier in the pandemic, “People just didn’t feel comfortable buying three months out,” Mr. Gupta said. Now more customers are starting to make summer plans, he said. “We’re seeing higher bookings farther out.”

Southwest Airlines Co., which is in the midst of an aggressive expansion, also announced a slew of new routes on Thursday, including new services to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Bozeman, Mont.—two of the 17 new airports Southwest has added to its network since the start of the pandemic.

With spring break under way, people are already starting to travel again, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations against it. Passenger volumes at U.S. airports hit a fresh pandemic high this week, with more than 1.5 million people passing security on Sunday, according to the Transportation Security Administration, although volumes are still down about 40% from 2019 levels.

But these are different travelers than the lucrative corporate customers that typically bring in as much as half of the revenue for major carriers such as United, American AirlinesGroup Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. Corporations still haven’t returned to their typical pace of travel, and it could be years before they do, analysts say.

Moody’s Investors Service estimates that between 10% and 30% of business travel might not return soon. Sales calls will likely bounce back, but virtual meetings could replace travel for internal meetings and some conferences, Moody’s said.

Acceleration of the vaccine rollout has helped spark the renewed interest in travel, analysts say.

After President Biden said earlier this month that July 4 would “begin to mark our independence from this virus,” searches for Fourth of July travel jumped 63%, said Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, a travel booking site. While Europe typically accounts for about 45% of summer international bookings, most of that traffic has shifted toward Mexico and the Caribbean, which are largely open to American tourists without restrictions, Mr. Damodaran said.

United plans to fly more to Latin America, including Mexico and the Caribbean, than it did in 2019, the carrier said. United is also resuming some international flights to Rome, Milan, Amsterdam and Tokyo.

While airlines are largely banking on domestic travel this summer, there are signs that vaccines could help open international markets that have been sealed off for months. Iceland has said it will allow travelers, including Americans, to visit once again if they present proof they have been fully vaccinated.

Delta announced Friday that it plans to launch new daily flights to Reykjavik from Boston and to resume service from New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul starting in May.

“As confidence in travel rises, we hope more countries continue reopening to vaccinated travelers,” Joe Esposito, senior vice president of network planning, said in a statement.

Airlines and other travel companies have pushed the Biden administration to develop a plan to remove restrictions on international travel. Restrictions imposed last year bar most travelers from the U.K., Europe and a handful of other countries unless they are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Even as the coronavirus pandemic decimated travel demand last summer, places with plenty of space and opportunity for outdoor activities, including beaches and national parks, remained popular. Airlines are betting that the trend will hold up this summer.

“People want to go to wide open spaces,” said John Kirby, vice president of network planning at Spirit Airlines Inc. Las Vegas remained popular even when casinos were closed as people flew there for easy access to Zion National Park, he said.

Spirit, which largely held off on entering new markets last year, recently announced it will add flights to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and cities in Florida from Louisville, Milwaukee and St. Louis. Spirit also announced new service to Pensacola, Fla., from seven cities.

The added routes by carriers could lead to more head-to-head competition as they move into each others’ turf. Feuds over market share had become more rare in recent years, after mergers that helped to stabilize the airline industry.

Delta announced 20 new routes last week, including additional flights to Glacier Park, Mont., and Jackson Hole, Wyo. Delta is also adding more flights to Alaska with new and expanded service to Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other cities.

Shortly after Delta’s announcement, Alaska Air Group Inc. shot back with a flight from Anchorage to Minneapolis-St. Paul, a Delta hub. Southwest Airlines has made inroads at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Miami International Airport—both hubs for major rivals.

Carriers are also chasing population moves. Austin, Texas, is booming, with startups and remote workers flocking to the city in recent months.

Airlines are following. American Airlines earlier this month announced service to 10 new destinations from Austin. Not to be outdone, Southwest on Thursday said it would also boost its Austin flying, with plans to offer nonstop service to twice as many destinations from the city as any other carrier.

“While other carriers have fallen in and out of love with Austin across the years, we’re continuing to build on nearly 45 years of offering affordable and relevant air service for Central Texans and those who are headed there,” Southwest Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Watterson said.

This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal

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