More flights have been cancelled this year than at any time since DOT cancellation statistics began 25 years ago.
Many travelers aren’t aware that they can get a full refund when they cancel, one of the more common questions I get is “if the trip I’m getting rebooked on doesn’t work for me, am I just flushing this ticket down the toilet?” No, you’re not, if your flight doesn’t operate you can get all of your money back. Airlines aren’t always clear on this point.
But rebooking options don’t always work for passengers. Planes run much closer to capacity these days, which means there isn’t a lot of slack in the system to re-accommodate folks whose flights have been cnacelled.
It’s tough to get through to airlines to sort things out. You’d expect websites to be better at handling rebooking than they are, occasionally this is possible but most websites do not handle this well at all. I’ve been unable to help people rebook cancelled flights online this week with American, Delta, United, and US Airways.
With everyone being cancelled at the same time, getting through on the phone is tough. Even elite lines can be difficult, this winter I’ve had 4 hour wait times to get through to American’s Executive Platinum line. Their system has been so overloaded that it couldn’t even validate my status to bump me up in the queue, though it’s not clear that the system was even able to manage the queue properly if it could.
Airline callback services are helpful, third party systems that will call you when it’s your turn are too. It doesn’t help other travelers but I’ll often try to get into the queue even when I’m not 100% sure that I need to be, the wait times are so long that I want to have access to someone in case I need it. (Go ahead and criticize me for this.)
But a point I haven’t seen made elsewhere is that airline auto-rebooking systems often make the problem worse, not better.
- People often don’t know they’ve been rebooked
- Auto-rebooking isn’t usually very ‘smart’, putting people on flights that depart even later than their return flight is supposed to bring them home (in the case of a short 1-3 day trip).
- More generally, rebooking during major weather events and with capacity constrained often creates un-useful itineraries. That ties up inventory. Putting people on flights they cannot or will not take means that inventory is held, eventually to be cancelled (by phone). And as a result, others are not able to grab that inventory, until it’s freed up.
Auto-rebooking, when done poorly, makes it harder for everyone to get their trips sorted and get where they’re going.
It also leads to constant fluctuations in flight availability. People get rebooked, space disappears. The itineraries don’t work for them, they finally get through on the phone and change or cancel, seats re-appear. And with eveyrone looking to book something else, it then disappears just as quickly as someone else grabs it.
With long hold times, this can be even more frustrating — if you’re checking availability proactively, you see seats, but by the time you can get through to an agent (whether on the phone, or even in line at the club at the airport) those seats may be gone.
Auto-rebooking can be a great tool during modest events, isolated weather incidents or individual flights going mechanical. But during systemwide events with limited inventory available for rebooking, my own sense is that these systems make things worse rather than better.
Do you agree?