United Airlines Will Start Canceling Empty Flights

Filed Under: United

United Airlines has this month introduced a program that has the potential to be problematic for customers.

Do airlines cancel empty flights?

One common misconception that people have long had about airlines is that they cancel empty flights. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked something along the lines of “my flight tomorrow looks really empty, what are the odds the airline cancels it?”

Historically this hasn’t been a widespread practice at airlines, at least close to departure. Of course airlines are constantly adjusting their schedules monthly and seasonally to reflect demand.

However, generally speaking airlines haven’t engaged in the practice of canceling a flight shortly before departure because it’s not very full. After all, the plane and crew will need to be at the next destination to operate another flight, which may be full.

United Airlines will start canceling empty flights

Brian Sumers at Skift has the details of a new program that United has introduced. As of August 14, 2020, United Airlines has introduced an algorithm to cancel flights that are projected to be less than 30% full:

  • This is done within seven days of departure
  • The algorithm takes into account how easily passengers can be rebooked, whether the airplane is needed at the destination, what the implications would be for the flight crew, etc.
  • It has so far been used on less than 1% of flights

What does this mean for the passengers who were on these flights? United Airlines claims that:

  • 77% of affected passengers arrive at their destination within four hours of their originally scheduled time
  • One third of passengers arrive early

To be clear, passengers arriving early could still be inconvenienced significantly. In other words, you could have been booked on a 10AM flight that was canceled, and be rebooked on a 6AM flight, causing to arrive “early.”

Personally I’m also not too impressed by the statistic that 77% of passengers arrived within four hours. That means that 23% of passengers didn’t arrive within four hours.

Even for those who arrived within four hours, it could very well be that they booked a nonstop and were put on a connecting itinerary, originally had a good seat but ended up in a middle seat, etc.

United has started canceling some flights less than 30% full

Good business, or bad customer service?

Obviously times are especially tough right now, and I respect that airlines need to conserve cash. United has for the most part done a great job conserving cash, and the airline deserves credit for that. So at this very point I can’t blame the airline for this policy that much.

However, long-term this is a problematic policy, in my opinion. Airline pricing is incredibly complex, and airlines charge more for nonstop itineraries, flights at certain times, etc.

We book flights with the expectation that airlines will make their best effort to operate them as scheduled. United Airlines is taking the reliability out of flight bookings, and is essentially calculating the profitability of each individual flight, rather than the overall network.

Passengers could pay twice as much for a nonstop itinerary over a connecting itinerary, only to be rebooked on a connecting itinerary because the nonstop wasn’t full enough. Passengers wouldn’t then receive the fare difference between what they booked and what they flew.

You could find yourself connecting when booking a nonstop itinerary

Bottom line

United Airlines is starting to cancel flights close to departure if they’re not projected to be full. Admittedly these are desperate times and airlines are looking to conserve cash, so at this moment I can’t blame the airline.

However, this is a practice that’s problematic long-term. Airlines charge vastly different fares depending on the time of day you’re flying and whether you’re connecting, and now an algorithm could cause flights to be canceled and people to be reaccommodated.

Do you take issue with United’s new policy of canceling empty flights?

  1. Transparency on flight status (i.e. the reason behind a cancellation) is extremely important. If United is going to try something like this, it is better that they tell us up front what they are doing.

    I think the more important statistic is that the rebooking model has been used on less than 1% of flights since implementation– very few passengers overall are impacted– and capacity should increase with time.

  2. For what it is worth, I have always found that the US airlines are willing to work with passengers when schedule changes occur. The customer service folks are people too and understand all of the points you laid out Lucky (connections, seats, etc). There are probably examples of the contrary, but I have very very rarely had truly bad airline customer service when I didn’t blame the cs person for the issue and entered the conversation in a friendly manner rather than being hostile.

  3. Ditto what Ari wrote.

    Ben’s got to generate clickable headlines, so “1% of United flights cancelled because they were empty” wouldn’t have fit the bill.

  4. CX/KA has been consolidating empty flights for years, but only on “shuttle services” like Shanghai or Taipei, where flights depart almost every 15 mins or so. Sometimes they deploy an A330 instead of two A320s. At the same time, agents at TPE/PVG are very accommodating, giving them plenty of waitlisting flexibility. I see this can be a bigger issue for United.

  5. In these desperate times, the airlines should simply charge one standard (low) price for any seat within the chosen class of service if they can’t guarantee you’ll actually fly in the differentiated (upsold) seat. Problem solved. No complaints, no difficulty with getting some other seat on some other plane.

  6. @Lucky,
    Would this type of flight cancellation entitle the passenger to a refund under DOT regulations, even if the airline rebooks them?

  7. Kirby strike again. US Air seemed to do this during the recessions of the 90’s and early 2000’s so not surprising the UA leadership (USAir jr?) is doing the same. They just need to right size the schedule similar to DL and AA but UA has a LOT of widebodies going no where, so a lot of flights could get cancelled in the long run.

  8. @sunviking82

    1. I worked for USAir(ways) for 22+ years and I never saw a single flight cancelled for a low load factor. Your assertion that this was an even uncommon practice is demonstrably incorrect.
    2. Kirby had nothing to do with US Airways until the HP merger in 2005, so saying he had anything to do with policies in the “90’s and early 2000’s” is inaccurate.

  9. @K: right: very unclear
    There is definitely an overlap between 77% of “within 4 hrs” and 1/3 or 33% which arrive early.
    More honest would be to provide statistics on how many peopledo not make it to destination within 4 hrs and how many are re-accommodated on other carriers (good thing mostly if we are talking UA)

  10. Pointing out the obvious here, but if you are on a flight than technically the flight is not empty.

  11. Consider this — in today’s very low demand environment less than 1% of flights met the criteria for cancellation, i.e. expected load factor < 30%, aircraft/crew not needed at destination airport and ability to protect passengers within 4 hrs.

    Now contrast that with the environment a year ago when average load factors were in the high 70s (if not mid 80s) and it was not uncommon to have a LAX-SFO-LAX or ORD-LGA-ORD flight pair get cancelled within a few days of departure. Frankly proactive flight cancellations have happened for many years — sometimes under the guise of potential bad weather, sometimes due to end of month crew shortages and occasionally to balance out a sports charter flight.

    Much ado about nothing.

  12. As I’m sure thousands have discovered over the past six months, United Airlines doesn’t consider the removal of a flight from service to be a cancellation. This is simply a schedule change. Since March, I’ve had direct flights from IAD to SEA, YVR, CDG, GVA, and LIS all removed from service and then replaced with connecting garbage flights. United fought refunds on every one of them except for YVR. I “lucked out” on YVR only because this occurred after they reverted back to their more reasonable 2+ hour schedule change policy…still a schedule change, though, not a cancellation.

    Loser airline. Sounds like DOT complaints must have been lessening so they’re up to their old tricks again.

  13. It’s almost cruel that an airline can cancel a direct service, rebook you on a connecting flight and claim that as long as you arrive within 4 hours they can’t be faulted.

    At the same time send out nasty threatening letters saying skipping legs or hidden city ticketing is fraud and acting in poor faith to circumvent their fair business practices.

  14. @Roger, I would have jumped ship to other airlines after the first two nonstop cancellations! I mean IAD to SEA isn’t exactly flying to middle of nowhere. Unless you live in IAD, then your option is UA or UA.

  15. United started this months ago with their rebook you in X #of hours on another flight. Doesn’t help ANYONE when you have a connecting flight. Been left overnight in ORD (actually and DEN and will no longer fly UAL despite my year elite status, 500K miles banked and million miler status. Absolutely will not fly for business-F,B,J $$ is now going elsewhere. Hope they survive covid, not.

  16. This sucks especially for those like me who book based on seat selection and will pay more for a nonstop or better itinerary. Thus far all flights that I have been on have been fairly full and I’d rather have full flights at a reduced frequency than last minute cancellations and schedule changes.

  17. At least 3 times in the last 10 years, United has cancelled a flight I booked because of “the weather” . In all cases the weather was perfect at the point of departure and the destination. Notice of these calls came by way of either an email or an automated call the night before or the day of. Usually I was automatically rebooked for the following day which would mean missing my meeting in some cases.

    Don’t kid yourselves. United may deny cancelling empty flights in the past but it’s not true.

  18. As pointed out already, 30% full is not ’empty’.
    A ‘schedule change’ resulting in a cancellation is a cancellation, and is subject to the remedies of a cancelled flight, which are greater than a mere schedule change. Of course such sophistry is the stock-in-trade of airlines, particularly US ones, in putting profit before passengers at all costs.

  19. Oh that is funny in a way, I have a 10AM flight and UA changes it to 6AM ? Sorry won’t get the notification until it’s too late, then I will probably demand a refund. Well either me, or my credit card company.

  20. I think we need to cut the airlines a lot of slack right now. As a 130+ domestic segment a year UA flyer, this would have enraged me 6 months ago. Right now, I want UA to be there 6-12 months from now when my flying returns to that level.

    My expectations today are if UA can get me there the same day, it is a success. Just like every other business is the country, they’re trying their best and having to make decisions that inconvenience individuals to preserve the enterprise and the people that work there.

    Please be realistic about what is possible when passenger counts are down 60+%.

  21. @HKBelonger
    … which is very understanding of you, but what United is doing is dumping their costs on other businesses: to be sure of making your meetings, you now have to travel the day before. As well as the extra costs of an overnight hotel, etc, you also lose a day of work.

    Predictability is fundamental to a service business. The more United turns their service into a lottery, the more of their customers will seek a more reliable alternative.

    Though after Dr Dao, why anyone is still flying this garbage airline is beyond me.

  22. Short term cancellations are a totally common business practice. Lufthansa does this since at least over a decade. The official reason provided is “technical”, but in most cases it is a short term RM decision to cancel flights (or rather rotations), which don’t have enough passengers to cover the operating cost of the flight.

  23. @Michael
    “Short term cancellations [for RM] are a totally common business practice.”

    Any actual data that supports that, rather than just assertion/ anecdote?

    If not, I can counter with my anecdote that, despite being a frequent enough flyer to have been OWE for years and years, I have never had a last-minute cancellation other than for a broken plane (or crew timing out, after a broken plane). Or for horrible snow-storms in North America. Or for torrential rainstorms at Schipol. A hurricane in Montreal (what are the chances?). And some ghastly weather problem in São Paulo whose exact nature now escapes me.

    No cancellations for RM.

    Any service business which frequently cancels the service will sooner or later find itself short of customers. The exception is for monopolies. And eventually such poor performance usually leads to their monopoly being smashed by regulators.

  24. last minute cancelations for commercial reasons in Europe was one of the reasons why the EU261/2004 regulation was implemented.

    Having to compensate passengers changed the economics to the airline for just cancelling because they could and passengers couldn’t get to their destinations in good time.

  25. LH and LX have been doing this for may years. It’s a nuissance, but part of their 5-Star branding concept …

  26. United have always done this especially on routes with a lot of frequency e.g. SFO to LAX.

    If they have 2 half–full flights within an hour or two, they will cancel one of them and cram everyone onto the other flight.

  27. “Passengers could pay twice as much for a nonstop itinerary over a connecting itinerary, only to be rebooked on a connecting itinerary because the nonstop wasn’t full enough. Passengers wouldn’t then receive the fare difference between what they booked and what they flew.”

    This would really really suck.

  28. Instead of canceling flights, just downsize the plane. If it is known a couple of days in advance that a flight is not full, the airline should have enough time to switch the plane to a plane with fewer seats.

  29. @Andrew

    Noticed you had a typo, so I fixed it:

    It’s absolutely criminal that an airline can cancel a direct service, rebook you on a connecting flight and claim that as long as you arrive within 4 hours they can’t be faulted.

    As others have pointed out, direct flights can be substantially more expensive than connecting flights. The airlines obviously know this because they forbid hidden city ticketing and treat it as a breach of contract. Replacing a direct flight (expensive and convenient) with a connecting one (cheap and inconvenient) is the exact alleged fraud in reverse.

    I’ve never been able to book a cheap connecting or inconveniently timed flight and then switch at will to other flights on better aircraft, departing at better times without paying a
    fare difference. UA shouldn’t be able to do this without paying customers a fee or reimbursing a fare difference…not to mention reimbursement for missed hotel arrivals, late rental car pickup, or entirely canceled trips.

    This is blatant fraud and theft from customers, anyway you fu€&ing slice it.

  30. As a business traveler who could theoretically be impacted by this, I’m fine with it. These airlines need to stay afloat and as financially viable as possible. The good times will happen again. Let’s just be patient until then.

  31. The latest outrage from United. Arriving “within 4 hours” won’t work when one plans to arrive 2 hours before a 3 hour meeting on the other side of the state (California). The practice of “consolidating” flights that are lightly booked was rumored as a common practice by Eastern Airlines on their many daily flights between the Northeast and Florida in the SIXTIES! We know what happened to Eastern Air Lines. As someone who has flown 3 million lifetime miles on United I thought things were getting better. In 2018 fewer than 5% of the flights I was on arrived within 1 1/2 hours of the scheduled time; 2019 was much better. And now, this. Because of my age, I am in a “high risk” group so I won’t be flying any time soon. By the time the pandemic and need for strict procedures to prevent spread are no longer in effect, UA had better return to being a real airline, instead of turning into a low-income rural bus line.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reminder: OMAAT comments are changing soon. Register here to save your space.