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April's One-Two Punch: as Scheduled Flights Hit Record Lows, Cancellations Reach New Highs

Friday, June 26, 2020

The nation’s airlines drastically overhauled their operations in April in the face of the COVID-19 spread. The 10 marketing network carriers scheduled only 331,238 domestic flights in April 2020 down from 701,278 scheduled flights in the previous month.  They then canceled 41% of the scheduled flights that remained in reservation systems within seven days of the flight time.

As a result, the carriers operated an all-time monthly low of 194,390 flights in April 2020, compared to a previous low of 370,027 in February 1994.

The graph above shows how airlines scheduled fewer and fewer flights throughout the month as the drop in air travel demand was precipitous. By the end of the third week, the number of flights operated daily stabilized around 5,500.

Anticipating a major decline in demand for April, U.S. airlines removed a slew of flights from their schedules, resulting in a record low for the number of scheduled flights. (Technically, a flight that is de-scheduled at least 7 days in advance is not a cancellation.)  

Despite that record low number of flights scheduled, the number and percentage of scheduled domestic flights canceled in April 2020 still hit record highs.

Subtract a record high number of cancellations from a record low number of scheduled flights, and the outcome is a gut-punch to U.S. airlines.

Planning for April

As the coronavirus laid waste to air travel in March, airlines anticipated more of the same in April and began un-scheduling flights accordingly. As the graph below indicates, that resulted in a steep —and record-setting— reduction in the number of April scheduled flights. In fact, the 331,000 flights scheduled in April is only about half of the 668,000 flights scheduled in April 2019 and less than half of the 701,000 flights scheduled in March of this year.

April had other plans

Given the extraordinarily low number of scheduled flights in April, it would be reasonable to expect that airlines would have to cancel fewer flights than they did in March. However, they actually canceled more flights.

And, while the March percentage of flights canceled was the second lowest, outdone only by September 2001, the April 2020 cancellation rate exceeds both. The 137,000 canceled flights shown for April 2020 in the graph below represents a 41% cancellation rate, more than double the 17% cancellation rate in March of this year. It's also more than double the 20% of scheduled fights canceled after 9/11.

A third record falls

The combination of record low scheduled flights and record high flight cancellations also produced an overall number of operated flights that reached a new low. Despite the already low 583,000 flights operated in March, the 194,000 flights operated in April is not even a full 1/3 of that. 

Below, BTS presents the Excel table of flights operated, flights scheduled, flights canceled, and the cancellation rate for "All Carriers" and for individual carriers.