As freeze in air travel begins to thaw, United adds flights

With confidence rising that the end of the pandemic is growing closer, airports have begun to grow more crowded and airlines are starting to revive flights that vanished last year as people cancelled vacations and business trips.

United Airlines will add 26 new nonstop routes from Midwest cities to vacation spots like Hilton Head, S.C.; Pensacola, Fla.; and Portland, Maine. The airline said Thursday that it is also restarting more than 20 domestic routes and will initiate new service between Orange County, Calif., and Honolulu.

Scheduled United flights to Latin America will exceed levels before the pandemic, compared with the same period in 2019, including more flights to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The carrier will resume flights between Chicago and Tokyo and between New York/Newark and Milan and Rome, and restart service between Chicago and Amsterdam.

While that means United will be operating only 52% of its overall schedule compared with May 2019, it's significantly better than in May 2020, when flights were being operated at levels of about 14% of the same period the year before.

Air traffic has been increasing, particularly with the start of the spring break season. Tuesday marked the 13th straight day that more than 1 million passengers went through U.S. airport checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration. But traffic is still down about half from the same period in 2019.

Airlines have begun to loosen some restrictions, including opening up middle seats that had been blocked during the pandemic. The last holdout is Delta Air Lines, which has extended empty middle seats through April 30.

Airlines are also bringing back snacks and drinks after halting service last year to limit contact between flight attendants and passengers. Some, but not all, have resumed selling alcohol.

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