Canceled flights, low demand drop VIA passenger totals

HARLINGEN — Flight cancellations are on the rise and passenger totals at Valley International Airport this week are running about 40 percent of normal, airport officials said.

Both United Airlines and Southwest Airlines canceled flights into and out of the airport Tuesday.

“We’ve had some flights canceled just about every day on and off, and I’m not sure what the whole reasons are,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA, said Tuesday. “Southwest actually canceled their 6:05 flight this morning, United canceled their 12:10 and 2:15 and their 5:20 so there are three flights with United canceled today.”

Across the country, thousands of flights were canceled Monday as airlines pull back on flights for the few passengers still traveling for business or pleasure as the coronavirus pandemic continues. In some cases, passenger load factors — the ratio of passengers to a plane’s capacity — aren’t high enough to make a flight profitable.

Southwest Airlines, the biggest player among Valley International’s six passenger carriers, had already implemented a plan to reduce passenger capacity by at least 20 percent between mid-April and early June due to a drop in travel demand.

“On Friday, Southwest made the tough decision to further revise our schedule by cancelling approximately 1,000 of our almost 4,000 daily flights from Sunday, March 22, 2020, until the previously revised schedule begins on April 14, 2020,” reads a statement on the Southwest website. “We sincerely regret any inconvenience to our customers and our employees.”

Southwest went on to say it would try to ensure the canceled flights are at airports that have alternate flight or route options to minimize disruption to the passengers who are still traveling.

Valley International is continuing operations with added emphasis on disinfecting areas with high human traffic. Workers are using hospital-grade disinfectant on high-touch areas in a constant effort to minimize the possible spread of COVID-19.

“We are open for business like every airport around the country, I believe, at this time,” Esterly said. “Any kind of closure I think has to come from the federal government at this point.”

The numbers at Valley International are definitely trending downward. On Tuesday, there were 441 outbound passengers booked to fly.

The annual daily average at the airport is around 1,000 passengers, so Tuesday’s numbers reveal a drop to about 40 percent of what used to be normal.

“Yesterday I think we had 575, “Esterly said, noting Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually the slowest days, so the latest flight cancellations do make some sense.

“Looking down through the bookings, it’s just hit or miss,” he said. “American’s I guess right at about a 50-percent load factor, and some of the other ones are even lower. Southwest is definitely lower, but then again, Frontier has 130 and Sun Country has 127 booked. … I can’t see any pattern except for the fact that we’re definitely off.”

Whether the federal government will intervene to stop all U.S. flights temporarily to combat the spread of COVID-19 is more complicated than it may appear.

In addition to disruption to airports and passengers, these flights also carry cargo and a significant portion of the mail handled by the U.S. Postal Service.