Game Of Chicken: Passengers Vs. Airlines As Covid Travel Plans Change Last Minute

Traditionally airline schedules were mostly locked in around three months in advance. You could be confident of traveling on the flight schedule you purchased within three months, barring bad weather or mechanical problems.

And leisure travelers booked tickets on average between 90 and 120 days in advance, stretching out towards the farther end around major holidays where flights tend to sell out, while business travel customers book closer to departure as their plans on the ground for meetings firm up, as commitments that might keep them in the office become clear, and when the possibility of doing a different and higher value trip falls away.

These normal patterns have all changed. There’s almost no business travel (down 85) and leisure customers are buying at the last minute. It’s clear why that’s the case: virus uncertainty.

  • Things may look great at a destination now, but how are they going to look in two months?

  • You may be able to travel now without a quarantine, but how will that look in a month? Will cases where you are rise? Will your own state impose a quarantine on the destination you’re planning to visit, requiring you to stay home for 14 days when you come back?

  • Will your destination even be open? Will you get sick?

So much is happening so quickly that – even without change fees – it’s difficult to commit to a trip unless travel dates approach.

At the same time airlines don’t want to operate unprofitable flights. And without additional payroll support, where the government is paying airlines to keep more employees on than they need, the marginal cost of a trip is going to go up. Airlines won’t just have to cover incremental fuel costs, they’ll have to cover labor costs too.

As a result airlines are adjusting their schedules closer to travel than usual. According to OAG,

Delta Air Lines appear to be the first mover adjusting their schedules some six weeks before the week of travel which of course provides the greatest clarity for the traveller.

Southwest Airlines appear to be making adjustments at five weeks whilst American, JetBlue are giving four weeks’ notice leaving United Airlines either playing the best game of brinkmanship with a three-week schedule change or hoping for the market to always recover.

When airlines change their schedules they’ll rebook passengers onto other flights (as long as they still serve the city in question) but those flights might not be as convenient – and some are less willing to give refunds for simple schedule changes than they used to be, too.

But with forward bookings for November down 75% for both American and United, and down 89% for Delta compared to the same point last year, airlines are waiting to see what develops from the new consumer they’re not used to. It’s a game of chicken between traveler and airline.

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. Gary,
    Any idea about the other airlines like Qatar? Thinking about a trip in December and wondering if they would also end up canceling their flights?

  2. Air Canada cancels 1-2 weeks out and steals your money (why isn’t this on any blogs???)

    You also forgot
    *OPM flying is down because companies are too poor for frivolous trips for their employees
    *Regular people are too poor to travel because of nationwide financial uncertainty

  3. Personally, I am burning through my miles and points until things become clearer. I don’t want cash at risk.

  4. Okay so about three or four weeks ago maybe I went ahead and booked my family’s travel on Delta airlines for spring break. Was that possibly a bad idea? and if they cancel will they even give me my money back? Now I booked this on my Banks debit card so hopefully that wasn’t a totally bad idea.

  5. Great time to buy tickets given the cheap fares. So what if it is changed – I’m retired and can handle any reasonable change. If cancelled will get a refund. Always book hotels that can be cancelled a couple of days in advance.

    No problem at all. BTW if people are worried about maybe losing a few hundred so they burn miles/points like the last poster maybe you have bigger problems with your finances. I only burn points:miles if I get better value than consensus valuations. Otherwise I pay cash. Of course I can afford to pay cash for any flight or stay w no problem. Guess others actually have an issue w that.

  6. Just happened to me. Delta. Scheduled a flight Florida to Cancun 28 days out and at 24 days out canceled return flight. They rescheduled to a flight that didn’t leave enough time to go through customs. Now layover will be 4 hours

  7. American Airlines is seems to be changing their schedule as close as 2 weeks out for Hawaii flying. I just booked a flight from PHX – KOA for October 16, to qualify for the pre-travel testing program that starts on Oct 15. But checking American’s flight schedule, they seem to be cancelling all PHX-KOA flights on a rolling basis, every few days, up to about 2 weeks out. Alternatives offered include PHX-CLT-DAL-HNL-KOA, which is the most ridiculous domestic routing I’ve ever seen.

  8. The arrogance of poster AC is unreal. If you allow this type of condescension on your site, I’ll just find another – and I’m sure I’m not alone. What an ass.

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