American Airlines will halt air service to Dubuque Regional Airport for at least one month starting in October, citing low demand during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It didn’t come as a surprise, but I was hoping we would never get to this point,” said Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol on Thursday. “Hopefully, it’s just a month that we’re looking at.”
American announced it will drop flights to Dubuque and 14 other smaller U.S. cities from its schedule covering Oct. 7 to Nov. 3. Spokeswoman Andrea Koos wrote in an email to the Telegraph Herald that the suspension includes all three daily flights to Dubuque.
The airline blamed low demand during the coronavirus pandemic, which has triggered a massive slump in air travel and huge losses for the carriers. Airlines and their labor unions are seeking billions in new taxpayer relief.
“This is the first step as American continues to evaluate its network and plans for additional schedule changes in the coming weeks,” the airline said in a prepared statement.
Federal pandemic-relief funding approved in March provided American with $10.7 billion. In return for taxpayer dollars, airlines were barred from furloughing workers and were required to continue serving destinations as they had before the pandemic. Both of those conditions expire Sept. 30.
“You look at the big picture, and all of the airlines are suffering,” Buol said. “They’ve been able to keep flights going thanks to the funding that they got from Washington. They have a lot of capacity but low demand, and the airline industry is demand-driven.”
Dubuque Regional Airport Director Todd Dalsing said passenger travel has dropped 70% nationwide since 2019 because of COVID-19 — an effect felt locally, too.
“Our business and leisure demand has decreased,” Dalsing said.
July 2020 enplanements, or passengers, were down 67.7% in Dubuque compared to July 2019. That actually represented an improvement in year-over-year comparisons compared to April, down about 97%; May, about 92%; and June, about 80%.
In April, American Airlines reduced its number of daily flights from Dubuque from three to two. That dropped to one flight per day four days per week in May and one flight per day five days per week in June.
Dalsing said officials are “actively engaging with American and our federal representatives” to restore service to Dubuque — and to maximize the number of daily flights.
“That is all going to be based on demand,” he said. “As demand increases, so will air service.”
Airlines have been lobbying for additional funding to avoid furloughs through next March.
“We’re caught in a feud,” said Rick Dickinson, executive director of Greater Dubuque Development Corp. “We’re caught in the middle of negotiations between American Airlines and the U.S. Congress.”
Michael Zona, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, noted in an email to the TH that “airlines received significant taxpayer funds as a result of the CARES Act to retain jobs and services.”
“Sen. Grassley will work with the administration, his colleagues in Congress and airlines to retain air service in Iowa,” Zona wrote.
The office of U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, echoed those sentiments.
The office of U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, bemoaned the news.
“Abby has called on congressional leadership to extend protections under the CARES Act for aviation jobs as well as airline service to communities like Dubuque, and her office has followed up immediately with American Airlines about options and next steps for restoring service,” her office said in a statement. “This monthlong cancellation of flights underscores the need for state and federal leaders from both parties to come together on additional coronavirus relief to speed our recovery.”
American said that without additional federal money, it could lay off or furlough 25,000 workers this fall.
Koos wrote that she did not know what employment impact the suspension will have in Dubuque.
“We are still working through the impact these schedule suspensions will have on team members or contractors at the affected airports,” she wrote.
Molly Grover, president of Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed frustration at American’s announcement.
“We’re making sure our chamber members, our legislators and American Airlines know of our displeasure,” she said. “The Dubuque business community has had a longstanding relationship with American Airlines, and we’ve gone to bat for them time and time again. We’re extremely frustrated.”
Dickinson said the benefactors of American Airlines’ decision to suspend Dubuque service will be airports in Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities — facilities that he said are already drawing potential passengers away from Dubuque’s airport.
“There is about 75% leakage in our market for commercial travel already,” he said. “The immediate impact (on the American Airlines decision) will be on the remaining 25% that do travel out of Dubuque. This will mean a significant inconvenience for those travelers.”