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An American Airlines Boeing 777 being towed in Chicago. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Greg Linton)

U.S. Airlines Hit by East Coast Pipeline Shutdown

Several American Airlines flights have been scheduled with unusual domestic stops as the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, which was brought on by a ransomware attack on Saturday, continues toward its fourth day.

At the time of writing, two notable routes, both out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, have been affected. American’s 6:40 p.m. flight from Charlotte to London’s Heathrow Airport will stop in Boston, while its 11:40 a.m. flight to Honolulu will stop in Dallas/Fort Worth.

American Airlines confirmed the outage in an email to AirlineGeeks, saying that the stops were due to a fuel shortage connected to the East Coast Pipeline outage. The airline added that, while the flight to London will use the same aircraft for the entire trip, passengers traveling to Hawaii will change planes in Dallas/Fort Worth from a Boeing 777-200 to a Boeing 777-300ER.

For reference, the Boeing 777-200’s range is 5,240 miles, almost 1,000 less than the 6,030 the 777-300ER can fly. The 777-200, which also carries fewer passengers since it is the shorter of the two, does not carry as much fuel as the stretched 777-300ER.

“Currently, we are experiencing minimal operational impact to our overall flight schedule due to the fuel supply shortage on the East Coast – with two lines of long-haul flying out of Charlotte (CLT) impacted as a result,” American wrote in its statement.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and working around the clock to ensure that we have an adequate supply of fuel across our network,” the airline added.

An American Airlines 737 departs Dallas. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson) 

American expects the two flights will return to their original schedules on May 15. The airline did not comment on any other routes or how its larger network may be affected by the Colonial shutdown.

At the time of publishing, Charlotte Douglass International Airport has not responded to AirlineGeeks’ request for comment.

Wider Effects of the Shutdown

The Colonial Pipeline, which runs from Houston to New York Harbor, went down over the weekend, and suppliers that rely on the pipeline quickly began running out of gas. Prices in the areas the pipeline serve skyrocketed.

The 2.5 million barrels of fuel the Colonial Pipeline distributes daily represents 45% of all fuel consumed on the U.S. East Coast.

While American says this shutdown is only having a minimal effect on operations right now, if the takeover continues, the effects could grow. All airlines serving the East Coast could cancel services or add fuel stops to longer services if they can’t get enough fuel.

While aircraft could carry more fuel to the East Coast, there is a limit to how beneficial that will be. Airlines will need to choose between booking as many passengers and as much cargo as possible to make money off a flight and carrying enough fuel to supply at least parts of multiple flights, effectively deciding which routes’ passengers are most important to the airlines’ profitability.

The Southeast United States is most dependent on the pipeline. This could become a big problem for leisure travelers heading to popular beach destinations in Florida, which has been a popular tourist destination during the pandemic due to its relatively lax mask and social distancing guidelines.

If airlines cannot sufficiently serve these popular Florida destinations, which many carriers have flocked to due to surges in leisure travel during the pandemic, they may be missing out on valuable chunks of revenue at a time when every cent matters.

Even though Florida does have access to Gulf Coast refineries via waterborne vessels and therefore will likely be well supplied to whether this crisis, if airline ticket prices are forced to reflect rising gas prices caused by the Colonial Pipeline outage, some travelers may decide not to book travel, affecting airline revenue regardless.

Responses Across the Region

Besides Charlotte, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is also monitoring this situation, as it is among the states that rely heavily on the Colonial Pipeline. If it goes down, the impacts on global air travel will be severe. Not only is Atlanta a major hub for Delta Air Lines, one of American’s biggest competitors and among the most powerful carriers in the world, but it is also a major entry point for international cargo crossing the Atlantic.

This is especially impactful as shipments of coronavirus vaccines are distributed from American manufacturers – including those producing Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines as well as sending out ingredients for AstraZeneca shots.

Without timely distribution of these doses, countries without the ability to purchase vaccines elsewhere risk more surges in coronavirus cases, which brings additional issues to health systems and business developments even as the world slowly but surely begins emerging from the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is already preparing for prolonged pipeline outages that would require special shipping circumstances. The agency has signed a temporary waiver for 17 states that will allow truckers to work longer hours.

Restoring the Pipeline

In the meantime, the Colonial Pipeline’s operator is taking steps to resume operation as the situation evolves.

“We can now report that Line 4, which runs from Greensboro, N.C., to Woodbine, Md., is operating under manual control for a limited period of time while existing inventory is available,” Colonial said on Monday night in a statement. “While our main lines continue to be offline, some smaller lateral lines between terminals and delivery points are now operational as well.”

“We continue to evaluate product inventory in storage tanks at our facilities and others along our system and are working with our shippers to move this product to terminals for local delivery,” the company continued.

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