American Airlines will temporarily stop flying routes to 15 small cities – including Greenville, NC – in October, signaling that some areas could wind up underserved as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the travel industry.

Meanwhile, Raleigh-Durham International Airport reports that passenger traffic plummeted in July from a year ago – further evidence of the pandemic’s impact on travel.

RDU said Thursday “traditionally” busy July traffic was down 77.1 percent from a year ago as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hinder air travel, Mattias Miller reported for North Carolina Business News Wire.

During July, 306,715 passengers boarded flights at RDU, according to a press release from the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. Last year, RDU said July 2019 was its busiest month on record with 679,000 passengers.

The latest July traffic numbers showed a month-over-month improvement of 46.7 percent from the June levels. RDU’s passenger traffic peaked over the Independence Day holiday weekend at about 26 percent of 2019 levels and then flattened out until it saw a “modest bump” in traffic in August.

The airport’s TSA screened more than 41,000 departing passengers the week ending Aug. 10, a 6 percent increase from the week prior, but only one-fourth of the traffic RDU saw in 2019.

“The aviation industry continues to feel the effects of the global pandemic and government restrictions that discourage non-essential travel,” Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority CEO Michael Landguth said in a statement.

Landguth noted that with the decline in business travel, some leisure travels are “taking advantage of low air fares and flying in greater numbers during the summer months.”

“We expect to see the number of travelers flatten or fall with the start of the school year,” he added.

Airlines are making near-term adjustments to flight schedules to offset reduced traffic. Southwest cut an additional 40 percent of its September flights at RDU and dropped its nonstop routes to Las Vegas and Houston.

Cutbacks at American

American said that, for now, it plans to halt service during its “October schedule period,” which runs from October 7 to November 3, but there are no guarantees service will return after that.

“It’s definitely something that we didn’t want to hear,” Bill Hopper, executive director of Pitt-Greenville Airport, told the Triangle Business Journal. “We’re a small commercial service airport. … American Airlines is the only airline at this airport, and so it’s definitely going to impact air service in and out of this airport during that period.”

American “continues to evaluate its network and plans for additional schedule changes in the coming weeks,” the company said in a press release.

Other than Greenville, other affected cities are Del Rio, Texas; Dubuque, Iowa; Florence, South Carolina; Huntington, West Virginia, Joplin, MiIssouri; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Lake Charles, Louisiana; New Haven, Connecticut; New Windsor, New York; Roswell, New Mexico; Sioux City, Iowa; Springfield, Illinois; Stillwater, Oklahoma; and Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Those cities range from about 30,000 people, such as Williamsport and Del Rio, to the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek metro area that includes half a million people.

Though airlines have drastically reduced the number of flights they’re operating, major carriers that accepted federal aid through the CARES Act earlier this year have so far been barred from cutting off service to an entire market.

But that requirement expires this fall, and American Airlines has already notified 25,000 workers that they may be furloughed beginning October 1.The company has said it supports a CARES Act extension through March 2021, however.

Small-city airports have already been hit particularly hard by the pandemic’s economic fallout, and if airlines stop serving certain areas altogether, it could leave a smattering of air travel “deserts” that will make it more difficult for those locations to bring their economies back to life when the pandemic subsides.