Dear got off,
My question is about airlines changing routes, a huge frustration for me since returning to travel after a pandemic hiatus. I book a direct flight at the right time and receive an email days or weeks later with an inconvenient time change or an extra layover or both. The worst was when I was planning a trip with my daughter to Tampa, Florida. In January I booked a direct flight with Southwest Airlines leaving Hartford, Conn. took off and arrived in Tampa three hours later . Perfect. But on Feb. 15, Southwest emailed me that they had moved me to a 6:15 PM flight with a nearly three hour layover in Nashville, which would get me to Tampa by 1:10 AM! Why is this okay? It’s like I bought a nice Subaru Forester and they delivered a run down and rusty Trans Am and told me it was the only option. Phoebe, Massachusetts
Leave it to airlines to make car dealerships seem transparent by comparison. While you could certainly sue your fictitious dealer for breach of contract, the real Southwest was within their contractual rights to cancel your original flight and put you on that midnight plane from Nashville.
There is no law against an airline changing your itinerary unilaterally, and in such cases the most important rule the US government requires from the airlines is a weak rule. If a carrier imposes a new itinerary on a customer that would result in a “significant delay‘, the company should offer you a refund, in your case $264 each for two ‘Wanna Get Away’ fares, Southwest’s equivalent of economy class.
They did, but as you told me via Zoom, canceling the trip wouldn’t suffice: you wanted to go to Florida and had already arranged lodging. The airline gave you another option, saying you could look for an alternate route to the southwest and then make the change online or through customer service (which you did, painfully, as we’ll see later).
Dan Landson, a spokesperson for Southwest, said that while he couldn’t go into detail about your individual case, “nothing out of the ordinary happened.”
In fact, it was all too common: I have recently received several similar stories of woe from other readers, friends, and members of my own family. But it’s hard to pin down numbers on flights that change more than a week before departure. The federal government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics does not and does not collect such data, according to the bureau’s Ramond Robinson FlightAwarethe go-to site for airline delay and cancellation statistics, according to a company spokeswoman Kathleen Bangs.
The six airlines (American, Delta, United, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue) I asked would not provide specifics. To be fair, such numbers would be very complicated, given that many airlines schedule flights 330 days in advance that are “essentially placeholders,” said Suresh Acharya, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. who has worked on airlines. optimization systems for two decades. Schedules are fixed 90 to 180 days in advance, he said, and many changes — such as a switch to a larger plane — are barely noticeable to customers.
But Morgan Durrant, a spokesperson for Delta, did say there were “many schedule changes, more than we’d seen before,” in early 2021 as the airline added more flights and made other adjustments to the existing schedule. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to Delta and other airlines during the pandemic, given the unpredictability of not only customer demand, but also crew retirements and illnesses and delays in delivering new aircraft due to supply chain disruptions.
If there are schedule changes, Southwest’s Mr. Landson said, “We put all our customers on the next available flight. In some situations, that could mean a much later flight than originally planned. It’s something we don’t like to see happen.” But it does happen from time to time.”
If you’re annoyed now, Phoebe, don’t do the next thing like that. You were most likely the victim of an industry-wide policy that discriminates against a specific kind of customer — let’s call them “normal” — who choose the cheapest airfare they can find, regardless of which airline it’s on.
That’s important, because according to Professor Acharya, airline algorithms rank passengers in order of importance, based on variables such as fare class, loyalty status, whether you paid in miles or dollars, how large your group is, and whether you are an airline. colleague.
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As you told me, Phoebe, you could find two other options on the Southwest website that worked better for you. The best was an afternoon flight from equally convenient (to you) Providence that matched your original itinerary almost exactly, the other a direct evening flight from Hartford on your preferred travel date. You were stunned when the site wouldn’t let you on the Providence flight, and in an obnoxious, eight-hour, on-and-off Twitter conversation with Southwest the next day, you found out it was because Providence and Hartford weren’t” co-terminals” — a frustrating bit of jargon that means the airline didn’t consider them interchangeable, but you ended up rebooking that evening flight from Hartford.
That’s annoying, but the big mystery to me is why you weren’t automatically rebooked on that evening flight. Mr. Landson suspected that by the time your number came up in the seat reassignment process, others had filled the free seats on the flight, but spots were opening up by the time you looked.
When I presented that answer to Professor Archarya, he warned that there could also be a “dark” possibility. Airlines sometimes tweak algorithms to make revenue considerations more important than customer satisfaction, he said, and it was theoretically possible that Southwest kept some of those Hartford-to-Tampa seats open to maximize revenue by selling later. Mr Landson objected, saying that in cases like this Southwest always books passengers on the next available flight if there is enough room for their group.
In the future, you and other readers can take steps to minimize such frustrations, although in most cases they will cost time, money, or perhaps both.
One option is to simply book closer to the flight date. As Mr Acharya said, schedules are much more settled after 90 days, so the later you book the less chance of changes. Of course, this won’t help in the event of weather problems and Covid spikes knocking out crews, and you could be missing out on early bird prizes.
Another option, one I am now considering for myself, is to forgo the “cheapest rate wins” strategy. Prefer the airline that flies the most on routes you frequent, spending an extra $20 or even $50 while working on your loyalty status. (Airline credit cards can help, though they have their own problems.) Status also helps when flights are canceled at the last minute.
Third, and possibly only worth checking out if you have a narrow window in which to arrive for a wedding or other important event, is what George Hobica, founder of flight ticketswatchdog.com, suggests buying a second, fully refundable seat from another airline around the same time. Refundable flights are more expensive, but you can cancel anytime before your scheduled departure and get your money back. So if your original ticket is changed in an unacceptable time, you will get your money back and fly back up; if your original doesn’t change, cancel your refundable backup.
Of course, the line between corporate greed and customer satisfaction is deeply hidden in secret airline algorithms. But it struck me that we could at least solve part of the problem if airlines thought we’d be willing to pay more across the board to build in more slack in the system. I said that to Ms. Bangs from FlightAware.
“We have such a system,” she joked. “It’s called private aviation.”