Airline Weekly

Why Did Spirit Airlines Just Cut 35 Routes?

Spirit Airlines has cancelled at least 35 routes from January as industry-wide issues take their toll on air carriers’ ability to recover — and expand — their schedules next year.

The South Florida-based discounter has pulled 35 routes from its future schedules beginning in January, according to Diio by Cirium schedules as of November 6. Cutting more than three dozen routes at one time is large number for any airline, but Spirit is prone to such big reductions because of the high number of routes flown just once a day or less. Other airlines can often make similarly sized capacity reductions by cancelling a flight instead of a whole route.

Many of Spirit’s cancelled routes touch Florida, including seven each from Fort Myers and Tampa, six from Fort Lauderdale, three from Orlando, and two from Miami, Diio shows. Overall, the airline reduced its planned capacity in the first quarter of 2023 by 5 percent compared to the week before; capacity will still be up roughly 11 percent year-over-year, and 35 percent versus 2019.

Any or all of these routes could come back when Spirit extends its schedule beyond May. But, for now, they are out.

Airlines globally face industry-wide supply chain issues that are delaying deliveries of new aircraft, and creating a shortage of parts needed to maintain in-service airplanes. No carrier is immune from the production issues at both Airbus and Boeing. In October, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr said capacity discipline was being “forced” on the industry by the supply chain issues.

“Putting it directly, we are seeing supply chain-related issues on aircraft deliveries and … on engine manufacturing and engine overhaul, which is forcing us to take aircraft out of service,” Spirit CEO Ted Christie said during the airline’s third-quarter earnings call in October. “We’re losing active airplanes, which is the primary driver of the reduction in [capacity].”

Christie’s comments were in response to analyst questions on Spirit’s decision to reduce its 2023 full-year capacity guidance by at least 3 percent from its last forecast in July.

Complicating matters for Spirit are the continued staffing issues at the air traffic control center in Jacksonville, which manages almost all flights to and from Florida. Matt Klein, the discounter’s commercial chief, said on the same call that Spirit has cut flights between Florida and the rest of the U.S. have been cut by about 10 points, to 40 percent of its schedule, due to the air traffic control constraints.

JetBlue Airways President Joanna Geraghty also warned in October of air traffic control staffing constraints limiting schedules and, potentially, impacting operations into next year. “The [air traffic control] environment remains fragile,” she said.

Spirit and JetBlue are seeking antitrust approval from U.S. Justice Department for their $3.8 billion merger that would create the fifth largest U.S. airline. However, until the deal is approved by regulators, each airline continues to operate independently and are barred from discussing schedules or other commercial matters.

The air traffic constraints explain the number of Florida routes that Spirit is cancelling come January. Gone are nonstops like those between Hartford, Conn., to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Miami, and Tampa; Latrobe, Pa. — where Spirit is the sole air carrier — and Fort Lauderdale and Tampa; and between Columbus, Ohio, and Fort Myers and Tampa, Diio schedules show. Spirit will operate 42 percent fewer seats in Fort Myers — also hard hit by Hurricane Ian at the end of September — and 29 percent fewer seats in Tampa this January than a year ago.

Of course, not all of Spirit’s cancelled routes touch Florida. Flights between, for example, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, and Philadelphia and both Aguadilla and New Orleans, and are also out come January.

Spirit spokesperson Erik Hofmeyer said the airline, while making some reductions, was also adding San Antonio to its map in November 17, and resuming flights to Pensacola on November 9. He added that airlines regularly publish larger schedules than they intend to fly, and then strategically reduce them based on bookings about 90 days out.

The discounter also unveiled four new routes over the weekend: Charlotte to both Dallas-Fort Worth and Nashville; Dallas-Fort Worth to Newark; and Los Angeles to Memphis from April, according to Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting’s latest weekly network update. Nonstops between Baltimore-Washington and both Austin and Minneapolis-St. Paul will also resume in January after a 2.5-year suspension.

U.S. travel demand remains strong, particularly among the leisure travelers who make up the bulk of Spirit’s business, Klein said in October.

Story updated to reflect that only 35 routes were cancelled, and three routes were erroneously removed from schedule data.

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