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.