Delta requests waiver to keep U.S. Virgin Islands flights on hold

A plane descends Tuesday, March 31, 2020 over Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where flights have fallen off drastically since the coronavirus pandemic. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
A plane descends Tuesday, March 31, 2020 over Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where flights have fallen off drastically since the coronavirus pandemic. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Delta Air Lines wants to keep its flights to the U.S. Virgin Islands on hold amid travel restrictions in place because of the coronavirus, according to a request filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The federal stimulus under the CARES Act says that for airlines that receive aid, the U.S. Transportation Secretary has the authority to require them to maintain flights through Sept. 30 "to ensure services to any point served by that carrier before March 1, 2020."

In practice, the DOT is applying the requirement only to domestic destinations, since there is a global health advisory urging U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel.

Delta is set to receive $5.4 billion in federal relief funding under the CARES Act.

The DOT said in a final order that it will allow airlines to run seasonal schedules on seasonal routes, and airlines also could request exemptions.

The order says if airlines ceased service to some points, they must resume service required in their minimum service obligation within seven business days of getting financial assistance from the CARES Act.

Atlanta-based Delta in its filing to the DOT asked for an exemption allowing it to wait to start summer season service until May and June as scheduled to West Yellowstone, Mont.; Cody, Wyo.; Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.; and Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka, Alaska.

Delta said it was operating flights from Atlanta to St. Thomas and St. Croix before the coronavirus pandemic.

But the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands on March 23 effectively banned all tourist travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands for at least 30 days, then extended the travel restrictions through at least April 30, Delta outlined in its filing to the DOT on Friday.

“The government-imposed ban on tourist travel eliminated virtually all of what demand there was left,” Delta said in its filing to request an exemption. “It would not serve the public interest to force Delta to continue operating empty or near-empty flights designed to accommodate tourist traffic to the U.S. Virgin Islands when the Governor has prohibited tourists from coming.”

The DOT on April 17 said it is deferring action on Delta’s request for an exemption for service to the Virgin Islands.

The agency granted most of the other exemptions Delta requested, but not for routes under Essential Air Service contracts including to West Yellowstone.