Detail On United’s New Program To Save Money Cancelling Lightly Booked Flights At The Last Minute

United Airlines has a new program to cancel flights that aren’t carrying enough passengers. The airline will tell customers 18-24 hours prior to departure that they’ll be traveling on different flights that may leave earlier or later, and 23% of the time mean arriving more than four hours off of the original schedule.

In normal times airlines operate even empty flights because they need the plane and crew in the next destination anyway, and all they’d save by cancelling is the cost of fuel. United now is willing to take that fuel savings and inconvenience customers. This isn’t like a mechanical delay or bad weather, where something goes wrong. This is United Airlines promising one thing and then reneging on its customers at the last minute to save short term cash. And this is a new, formal program.

Live and Let’s Fly has more details on how the new “Mainline Recommended Cancels” program works.

  • The software begins looking for flight loads 7 days prior to departure
  • It tries to consolidate flights that are less than 30% full
  • They consider costs to the airline like needing planes and crew at a flight’s destination
  • And then spits out recommendations for review by Network Directors and Operations Managers
  • They won’t consolidate flights to become more than 75% full, because taking people on planes with no one sitting in middle seats to totally non-socially distanced flights is a level of complaint they weren’t looking for.

The airline expects to cancel about 4 flights per day this way, mostly on flights between hubs or between a hub and a major city where there are several flights per day.

Make no mistake: United is selling flights at specific times, earning customer business on the basis of that schedule, and then reneging – not because they’re unable to operate the flights, but because they decide it’s cheaper not to deliver what customers purchased.

Selling flights and then cancelling them for reasons entirely within the airline’s control, for their own benefit, while 23% of rebooked customers are impacted by more than four hours is an unfair and deceptive practice. Customers whose travels are adversely affected to a significant degree should file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Dan selling one thing and then choosing – for reasons entirely within an airline’s control – not to deliver it is an unfair and deceptive practice. An airline CoC doesn’t trump that.

  2. Dan,

    You are splitting hairs. Flight times are not guaranteed. Inducing a sale with an intended flight schedule, but altering that schedule substantially merely for the airline’s convenience likely violates the covenant of good faith and fair dealing that inheres to any contract.

  3. Unfair and deceptive practices by an airline for US-origin/domestic flights are only prohibited to the extent that US DOT wants them to be. But given the record of the US DOT’s airline-friendly hand-slapping, expect UA and the other US airlines to get away with this kind of unfair and deceptive practice being used against consumers for the net financial benefit of the airline.

  4. I don’t think United will save enough from cutting 4 flights a day to make up for ill will this policy creates.

    I’ve been on 9 flights in the last 6 months, all Alaska Air. All have had multiple schedule changes, but the schedule is set a couple weeks before travel. That’s how you run an airline these days.

  5. For so long I’ve listened to flyers moan and complain about this being the reason airlines cancel flights. And now they might finally be right….

  6. @jfhscott – good faith and fair dealing is a state contract claim preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act under Ginsburg though, isn’t it? That’s why I make the point about unfair and deceptive with respect to DOT.

  7. Nothing is unfair and deceptive if it is stated in the Coc going forward. It already is to some degree. It always says equipment is subject to change. It is a very sensible decision for United to not fly flights that are going to be severely underutilized and unprofitable. It’s not good for the viability of the company and it’s not good for the environment. They have publicly revealed their policy which makes the public aware. United has a good faith responsibility to notify passenger as soon as the decision is made to cancel the flight and provide options to passengers. These options should include a full refund, a rebook on flights as similar as the original booking, or a partial refund. When people book a flight with a particular seating configuration, there is a reasonable expectation it will be fulfilled. Paying for Polaris means people should get Polaris, a partial refund for rebooking on old business, or partial compensation for those choosing to go a day early or a day latter. The seat doesn’t matter as much for economy as long as a family is together, is near the original time, or the above partial refund should apply if times are significantly altered. It’s not so much that this new policy exists but how it is going to be handled. The money saved by not flying a very empty aircraft will be more than the costs of providing fair compensation to customers if the rebook is not similar.

  8. @ Jimmy is correct… this program will not make it off the ground… It’s too late in the game.

    I was on 8 flights last week, all way above the 50% load factor. Most were actually more that 75%. That’s because the number of flights between each destination has been drastically reduced.

    You guys do realize, for the last 4+ months, United has sold tickets on flights that they consolidate 30-45 days out… right?

    I fly from SAT->IAH->BTR very VERY often… VERY. If you look at the schedule for IAH-BTR on October 1st, there are 7 daily flight (down from about 11 pre-Covid) . Now, look at IAH-BTR September 30th… Just 3 flights. In a few weeks, that will go from 7 to 3 (maybe 4 if we are lucky)

    This has been going on for months now…. Actually, it’s up to 3 from 2. Same with SAT-IAH (also up from 2 to 3). Pre-Covid, SAT saw almost hourly mainline (mostly) flights.

    This is Covid guys… for better or worse…

    At least United it trying to put “logic” behind it. AA & DL are doing the same… Flying empty flights isn’t good for the airline, their employees or the environment.

  9. Yeah it’s not a cool practice but these are unprecedented times and the airlines are in a tough spot. I can’t get too worked up over this. My travel is flexible enough that a few hours either way doesn’t matter. Maybe I’d feel differently if it happened more often.

  10. For full disclosure, and to make the United Airlines Contract of Carriage (CoC) clear, concise, and
    understandable, I think passengers would be happier if the first line read, “We are United Airlines. Expect your travel to suck.”

  11. I wonder whether the international airlines will cancel flights with low booking. I’ve booked an award ticket business class on Austrian in October, RT to Albania via VIE. When I selected seats, the seat maps showed NO other passengers!

  12. To me, they should be required to book you on a competitor with a similar schedule if the new UA flights don’t work for you.

    Also the main difference is that UA is automating this. When I flew AA in the early 2000s, it was pretty common for flights to get consolidated and we would get a call informing us we had been put on an earlier flight.

  13. This would be easier to digest if UA had a reputation of doing the right thing. As they have the exact opposite reputation, it’s a poor practice. They will not accommodate passengers on similar equipment, nor the same product. They will never refund any difference in price due to downgraded products. And when a customer states that the schedule does not accommodate their needs, UA will refuse a refund. This is the reality of UA.

    If they would do like others have done and provide real options to customers up to and including a full refund, that would be a different story. But this is UA and that is not a reality.

    I had an end of year trip on BA and there was a portion of the flight that has been cancelled (it was a non stop and the new schedule would involve making a connection). BA offered a change of day, a wide selection of flights for several days before and after the original for me to choose, all at no cost. They even offered a full refund. There is no way UA provides that level of service. They have proven it. And as most would likely agree, BA has been quite terrible with refunds. Given that BA has surpassed UA is saying a lot considering how difficult BA has been.

    UA has gone from bad to worse and continues to find new levels of disgust and shame. They absolutely will not do the right thing. I feel bad for their employees that they have abused over the last several years.

  14. To some it might be okay to be rebooked and arrive 4-5 hours later but for some others it’s much more challenging (not impossible) when you have very young children who go to bed as early as 9pm and landing at 11pm or past midnight is a real for a single parent.
    Instead of selling 10 flights day from point A to point B, and then consolidate to 6 or 5, why not upfront sell only 5-6 flights and stick to them. I was booked on a southwest flight from San Jose, CA to New Orleans arriving at around 6pm. Southwest informed me that my ticket has been cancelled because they couldn’t rebook me and my two kids on another flight. Making plans and see the airline screws up your planning is not only annoying but leave a bitter taste. As they said “Thank you for choosing xxxxx, we know you have many choices when flying…”

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