Airlines are flying some nearly empty planes from the U.S. to Mexico instead of canceling flights, a check by The Associated Press on Wednesday showed, a sign that swine flu worries may be keeping travelers home.
Travelers had reserved fewer than half of the available seats on six Continental Airlines flights on Wednesday night, according to the airline's Web site. Only five travelers had reserved any of the 157 available seats on one flight from Houston to Cancun set to depart Wednesday night. Twenty minutes before a Continental flight was set to leave Newark, N.J., for Mexico City, 93 of 124 seats were still available.
Continental Airlines Inc. and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines had the most scheduled U.S. flights to Mexico on Wednesday. Continental planned 66 flights and American planned 42. Those two and US Airways Group Inc. are the biggest U.S. carriers to Mexico.
Other airlines appeared to be struggling to fill seats, too, so Continental wasn't alone.
Whoever reserved seat D4 on the US Airways flight from Phoenix to Puerto Vallarta on Wednesday was on the verge of having half of the Boeing 737 to himself or herself; every other seat on that half of the plane was available. All told, only seven of 126 seats on that flight had been grabbed as of two-and-a-half hours before departure time.
Less than an hour before the scheduled takeoff, 100 out of 188 seats were empty on American Airlines flight 1211 from Dallas to Cancun.
In another sign of the travel dropoff, Mexican airport operator Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste SA de CV said passenger traffic has declined since the outbreak of swine flu. Asur, which operates Cancun Airport and eight others in southeast Mexico, didn't release specific figures and said it was too soon to know what the financial impact on the company would be.
Air Canada has suspended operations to three Mexican vacation spots until June 1, and Canadian discounter WestJet said it would stop service to four Mexican vacation spots from May 4, with most of them resuming June 20.
It wasn't all bleak on flights to Mexico. American Airlines had two planes leaving from Miami for Mexico City within 15 minutes of each other on Wednesday night. One showed only 7 empty seats out of 166 available; the other showed 85 available seats out of 132.
Empty planes flying to Mexico would not be a big surprise; the U.S. has warned Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico.
Tim Smith, a spokesman for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, said some travelers have been changing their travel to another date or to move to a destination outside of Mexico, or to ask for a refund. "We're not saying there have been no cancellations or even just a few — just that the overall impact on all flights is not in any unexpected range," he wrote in an e-mail. "As we've said each day, we continue to monitor bookings, but we continue to fly our normal schedule at this time."
Continental Airlines Inc. spokeswoman Julie King said the airline is receiving "numerous calls from customers expressing concern about their travel and we have extended the time period for customers to reschedule travel to Mexico without penalty." Several airlines have made similar offers to allow customers to rebook.
AirTran Airways has received a small number of calls from passengers with most expressing concern and asking questions, but not canceling their plans, a spokesman said Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Alaska Air Group, which operates Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, said it's too early to quantify the impact of swine flu concerns on the company's loads or revenues.
The Web site of the largest U.S. carrier, Delta Air Lines Inc., which had 11 flights to Mexico scheduled on Wednesday, did not permit a check of remaining available seats on all flights in the same way as American and Continental, and a spokesman declined to provide the information.
Joe Brancatelli, who runs the travel Web site joesentme.com, pointed out that travel to Mexico has already been hurt by reports of drug wars, and kidnappings in Mexico City.
"There's been so much bad publicity about kidnappings and stuff going on into Mexico City, that business had dried up anyway from the U.S.," he said.
Because of the recession, airlines had already noted that travelers were waiting until closer to departure time to book their trips. That means many people are only booking their summer vacation now, Brancatelli said. The summer suspensions by the Canadian airlines suggest that worries about Mexico are weighing heavily on leisure travelers, he said.
"If you're Mexico, what can you say that combats firefights along the border with drug gangs, kidnappings in Mexico City, and now this virus? What do you say? Our beaches are cool? Come see the Aztec monuments that have been there for 5,000 years? I don't see how you sell this destination," he said.