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American Airlines executives optimistic about a recovery at Philadelphia International Airport

Philadelphia's dominant airline lay out plans for domestic and European travel.

Philadelphia International Airport on March 22, 2021.
Philadelphia International Airport on March 22, 2021.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Executives at Philadelphia International Airport and its largest air carrier, American Airlines, highlighted signs Wednesday of an ongoing economic recovery from the lowest points of the pandemic for the travel industry.

For now, that recovery is riding on leisure travel, while demand for international and business flights continues to lag.

“More than three out of four of our customers are now comfortable taking a domestic flight, as well as staying in a hotel,” said American Airlines vice president Lakshman Amaranayaka, who leads the company’s Philadelphia hub operations, citing customer sentiment data.

Between March 1 and March 31, customer comfort level with flying in the United States jumped from 60% to nearly 79%, according to his presentation Wednesday at a town-hall virtual meeting on air service at PHL.

As of this month, all of American’s aircraft are back in service, “and that is a tremendously good sign,” Amaranayaka said.

This summer, the airline intends to operate 90% of its domestic capacity and 80% of its international capacity, compared with 2019 levels, Amaranayaka said.

“We are preparing to hire pilots to support future operations,” he said, adding that it’s another positive indicator for the industry’s recovery.

At the pre-pandemic peak, in June 2019, the Philadelphia airport filled 34,500 daily seats for American. A year later, in June 2020, that figure plunged about 85%, to 5,400 daily seats.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. I don’t think anyone else here has,” said Ryan Isemeyer, an American Airlines manager for domestic network planning and strategy.

“But as we talk about rebound, and we talk about our road to recovery, we’ve been really happy with what we see in Philadelphia,” he said, as demand has grown for leisure-oriented destinations.

The airline has responded to that demand by adding flights to Florida destinations such as Key West and Daytona Beach, as well as such places as Nantucket, Mass., and Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We’ve also seen a lot of recovery in our visiting friends-and-relatives markets, and so we’ve responded to that by adding flights to Santiago, Dominican Republic,” Isemeyer said.

Demand for business-oriented flights out of Philadelphia, to cities including Cleveland, Boston, and Milwaukee, hasn’t recovered the same way it has for Florida destinations.

But American’s Philadelphia team is preparing for the return of business travelers, Isemeyer said, by adding seats to such places as Nashville, Atlanta, Houston, Boston and Austin, Texas.

“Our schedule is going to represent that we’re ready for you when you do decide to come back,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Philadelphia served as American’s main gateway to Europe. But coronavirus travel restrictions on both sides of the Atlantic have depressed demand for flights between the U.S. and European countries.

Now “we are slowly bringing back transatlantic service and we’re keeping a very close eye on the various countries and their stages of opening,” said American Airlines’ Henning Greiser, director for international networking planning.

“Each country is taking a very different approach,” Greiser said, “so depending where they are in this process, it has different implications for our capacity.”

Greece has already announced reopening plans for vaccinated travelers or those with a negative test, and American is planning to start service to Athens in mid-August, Greiser said.

Spain, France, and Italy have not yet set specific timelines or parameters for reopening. “We’re currently set up to bring back service to these destinations also by the middle of August,” Greiser said. “Whether or not we can hold that date will very much depend on what the opening actually looks like.”

American has already added passenger service from Philadelphia to London, Dublin, and, more recently, Amsterdam — even though each respective country still has various travel restrictions in place. “These three are actually unique in the sense that all three have a significant amount of cargo demand, so we’re operating full bellies on these aircraft,” Greiser said.