Passengers have long suspected that airlines cancel flights that are mostly empty, to save money. In the past that’s almost never been true.
- They’re going to need the plane at the next destination
- Crew on the flight need to work downline flights as well
- And since they’re paying for the plane anyway, and paying crew, there’s not enough savings to make it worth dumping on customers
That’s no longer true at United Airlines, as Skift‘s Brian Sumers reports. Buying a ticket for a flight on United Airlines no longer is a commitment from them that you’ll travel on that flight, if it’s too empty to make money.
The airline started using a new computer algorithm on August 14 that considers where a plane and flight crew are really needed, and whether passengers can be accommodated on a later flight before deciding if a lightly booked flight should be cancelled.
Sumers reports that the program affects fewer than 1% of flights. That’s still a lot of flights and passengers even with travel down at least two thirds. The airline considers cancelling primarily hub-to-hub flights and flights between hubs and major markets, since those are the most likely to have later flights to move customers onto.
According to United,
- 77% of customers arrive within 4 hours. This means nearly a quarter of customers are inconvenienced more than 4 hours when United cancels the flights you book for its own convenience.
- And 1/3 arrive early which is at least as inconvenient. People book their preferred flight times for a reason, and having to change their plans because United changes their flights makes the airline an unreliable air travel partner.
Network carriers with hub operations used to bank flights to provide customers the most convenient schedules and attract their business, which meant planes waiting on people, while low cost carriers scheduled flights for their own operational reasons – one of the ways they offered savings was by having people wait on planes. The ticket price was low, but customers pay with their time instead. That’s now United.
United Airlines is, in effect, declaring themselves to be the most expensive option of the major airlines due to the uncertainty of whether they’ll operate the schedule they sell you.
And there’s even a certain element of deception in getting customers to choose United based on a schedule which they’ve set up systems to intentionally choose not to deliver on. This is a major move that’s unlikely to get the coverage it deserves but represents another reason not to book United, as if their shenanigans denying refunds for cancelled flights and devaluation of MileagePlus during a pandemic isn’t enough.