New United Program Cancels Flights When Not Enough People Buy Tickets

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.

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. Arriving early is inconvenient? You’d rather spend more time in flight than waiting on the ground with more space, restrooms, food, and potentially more time at your destination? I’d much rather arrive early than late.

  2. I agree, this won’t get the coverage it deserves – thank you for covering it! United has repeatedly proven itself to be the most consumer-unfriendly airline, and honestly one of the most consumer-unfriendly businesses period, in the U.S. This move doesn’t surprise me and just further supports my decision to quit United (I’m a recovering elite).

  3. Orange: arriving early in this case doesn’t mean the plane flew faster than predicted. It also means the flight is departing earlier, which yes can be inconvenient.

  4. @Orange,
    I don’t think it means a flight arrives early.

    It means you booked the noon LGA to ORD, and they rebook you on the 7:00 am LGA to ORD, and they say you arrived early!

  5. @Gary

    Any idea if the other airlines are also doing this, just more quietly without the details leaking out?

  6. BA might also be doing something similar. I had an award flight on AA for early Dec that used BA metal from LHR to MUC and they just canceled the connecting flight. When I called AA they put us on a flight 2 hours later so total travel time was increased only 2 hours but it seems BA might be canceling every other flight to try and load the remaining flights. I suspect all of the airlines will or already are doing this to save variable costs. None of them care that they do not provide what they originally contracted for. In this case BA wouldn’t even allow seats to be assigned for the inconvenience but they would SELL you a seat booking.
    Oh the fun of living in a declining business ethics world.

  7. What facts do we have that say DL, AA, or WN aren’t cancelling flights for the same reason?

    Should clear that up before declaring UA is different.

  8. While a major inconvenience for the traveler, it makes good business sense. Why use two planes & crews, when only one is needed, especially when the market is in the Covid slump.

    Basically the contract of carriage just states the airline is responsible for getting you from point A to B, nothing about it must be at a certain time.

  9. UA 2788 IAH-FRA was cancelled this passed Wednesday the 26th citing that the destination airport was experiencing severe weather. Frankfurt’s weather on the 26th was partly cloudy with a high of 73 and low of 66. No precipitation was recorded. On Thursday, the 27th it was very much the same weather with no precipitation recorded in Frankfurt. UA certainly seems to be cancelling flights and also lying about the reason.

  10. Oh and in addition to my above comment, LH441 which also operates IAH-FRA took off on Wednesday the 26th at 4:10pm from Houston with an on time arrival in Frankfurt without any issue for that “severe weather”. Very interesting.

  11. This is almost a humor article because:
    1) this writer is not nor ever was a United Airlines “Fan”
    2) Other Airlines have done and are currently doing the same.
    3) The Airlines in general have extra aircraft available so a flight doesn’t necessarily have to fly the scheduled flight to have a plane at the destination.
    4) In any other type business the practice would be similar and a smart practice.

  12. @Tom, United flights with 27xx and 28xx flight numbers are not passenger flights. They are repositioning and cargo-only flights. On the 26th and 27th United canceled 100s of flights from and to Houston due to a category 4 hurricane in the vicinity. Nice try slandering the airline, but you have no basis in reality.

  13. Its going to be a giant race to the bottom.I’m looking around at a lot of international destinations and some are already saying no tourists until at least early 2021. Given the second wave that is coming in the US in the fall it looks like international travel is going to be dead for quite awhile.

  14. @Gary,

    Hey man, it’s your site, and I enjoy your content. You write whatever you want, but I’m definitely getting a sense of you talking out of both sides of your mouth. You’ve made your opinion on airline bailouts pretty clear. “They’re businesses. Let them go under. They’ll still fly. Don’t subsidize the shareholders.” Yet when they make business decisions (cutting service to small cities that don’t make money/cancelling flights/etc.) you complain about that. I understand that they sometimes pull shady, not overly transparent tactics, but you can’t expect them to provide public essential services flying as if they were a government entity.

  15. @Tom – UA2788 is a freighter. United pulled down the majority of the IAH hub schedule on Wednesday due to the two hurricanes.
    Nice try.

  16. Not true. United isn’t doing anything that all other airlines aren’t doing.

    This guy just hates United.

  17. what is the magic number before they cancel it ? don’t think it’s true there are people at the destination coming back or going somewhere else…..fake news and the writer just dislikes united….so for them…..UA is a great airline…in better shape than AA,DL and WN……get real

  18. The only deception here is your article. I find all this very hard to believe, it is just not the way a reputable company does business.

  19. United Airlines acknowledges this is true, so I don’t see why people are calling it untrue. Just because it’s hard to believe anyone would actually do this… it’s 2020 after all! And United Airlines is now run by Scott Kirby.

  20. The 737 I’m on tomorrow per the seat map has about ~15 total taken – I’m fully ready for it to cancel

  21. I’d say that if this applies to…

    – less than 1% of total flights
    – flights with less than 30% load factor seven days out
    – middle of pandemic, and temporary

    … then this is acceptable in my opinion.

  22. This guy has always had an ax to grind with United, and he’s complaining about something during unprecedented global crisis. The standard operating practice of every company is changing to survive. Quit being such a baby. Omg.

  23. The airlines are in cash preservation mode. All of them. Flying will be even more inconvenient if any of them go out of business. If your local airline dies, Every future flight you take will be at least two legs on another airline unless your destination is one of their hubs.

  24. At least they ll refund.

    Air Canada keeps selling flights they never intend to operate and then steals your money….

  25. It doesn’t matter if I’m going on a business trip or a vacation. The timing of the flight is important. Arriving 4 hours later might cause me to miss the meeting that was the reason for the trip. Arriving a day later for a vacation might shorten the vacation to the point where it is no longer worth taking. Delayed arrivals due to mechanical problems or due to bad weather happen occasionally, but adding passenger load factors into the mix increases the probability of delay to an unacceptable level.

  26. I can’t believe there are people who are actually acting as if this is okay. If United wants to save costs, they should reduce the schedule that is available for customers to purchase. Rather than essentially committing false advertising by giving them the option to fly a schedule you don’t really believe you have any obligation to fulfill. That’s business ethics 101.

    What people are also missing here is the health aspect. That is why this is so important and a despicable practice. As someone who is still flying frequently now and is in contact with a vulnerable population for covid, one of the biggest factors of me taking a flight is seeing how many others are on it. To limit my potential exposure and reduce the risk of my exposing my clients. If I book a flight that has relatively few people and a good amount of social distancing available on the flight, then guess what? I picked it for a reason. For that to be taken away so that United can spare some cost is not okay.

    Again spare all the cost you want to, and do what you need to do in order to survive as a business. But do not falsely advertise to consumers in order to do so. I recently took a flight about a month-and-a-half ago from Houston to Los Angeles and I noticed this exact thing. My flight was about 30-40% full when I bought it the day before. By the time I boarded it was 80+% full. So they have been doing it for a while, selling a ticket with the intention of putting that person on a different plane with more people or adding people to the flight that’s actually going to take off.

    It is despicable, and why I will not be using United for my flights any longer.

  27. United should just sell seats on half their flights and then cancel the rest the day of departure to keep the gate slots. Being a million miler and flying First/Business is what I fly and what they want to “survive” but I cannot rely on them to get me from point A to point B anymore. Especially with a connection. They cancel my international flights and it costs me $200 just to go home and come back. Will be using my 500K miles to book on partner European airlines that will survive. And then say adios to United. Same goes for my entire team of 52 people (who also fly F,B,J. Add that up United!

  28. Gary Leff,
    Very poorly written article, just to bash United.
    Other airlines are doing the exact same thing, yet no mention of that.
    Did you forget that we operate in pandemic times still with demand down to 25%, therefore all airlines need to cut down their schedule drastically to even survive, let alone break even or even be profitable, which will be long ways away.
    Gary, you are either disconnected with reality of well paid to hate United.

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