Visualizing the Airline Industry's COVID Contraction

What is it about human nature which always pulls us towards what we can’t have? While I’ve been marooned at home due to Coronavirus, my travel wanderlust has been running rampant. I don’t know if it’s the work-from-home in particular, or if taking international travel off the table makes it that much more alluring, but the bottom line is that I can’t shake a desire to just go somewhere.

One of the ways this wanderlust has manifested itself has been me spending a lot of time reading about the airline industry, which is going through some pretty significant changes right now. I won’t necessarily get into all the details, but it’s fair to say that airlines will need to work through a lot of thorny structural problems over the next few months and years. Rapid adoption of videoconferencing as a legitimate alternative to business travel and decreased desire for high-density tourist activities like Disneyland present huge problems on the demand side, and on the supply-side, airlines will need to figure out what to do with a surplus supply of expensive planes and the thousands of pilots, flight attendants, and other employees which kept those planes running.

COVID Flight Data

To start to dig into some of these issues, albeit on a very micro scale, I thought it might be interesting to do a deep dive into the state of the US airline industry and start to identify how COVID has disrupted it. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on some wonderful data from the Opensky project, which is publishing data on nearly all flights taken around the globe.

Take a look below for a quick breakdown of flight volume by carrier, flight volume by plane type, and then a set of pre/post COVID route maps for each carrier.

Flight Volumes in the US

Monthly Flight Volume in 2020 Relative to January, by US Airline

Monthly Flight Volume in 2020, by US Airline

Flight Volumes by Plane Type

Monthly Flight Volume in 2020 Relative to January, by Plane Type

Monthly Flight Volume in 2020, by Plane Type

Route Maps by Airline

I had particular fun making the route maps below - to be honest, it’s why I wanted to post this update! I find my mind often understands visual guides and maps better than any other mechanism, and as such I wanted to visualize the changes to each airline’s route network in terms of its real life geometry across the US.

Some interesting food for thought as you think about each airline’s route network:

  • The balance that each airline struck between cutting routes entirely or cutting frequency
  • How the relative flight volume at each “hub” city has shifted
  • The coverage of each airline’s overall route map

Alaska Airlines

American Airlines

Delta Air Lines

Frontier Airlines

JetBlue Airways

Southwest Airlines

Spirit Airlines

United Airlines