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More than 2 years into pandemic, drastic airline schedule changes are still the norm

Aug. 17, 2022
6 min read
JetBlue plane
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Imagine you live in Jacksonville, Florida, and you need to get to Los Angeles in January.

Currently, the only flight for the 2,153-mile route is a morning departure to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on JetBlue, with a red-eye return to Jacksonville International Airport (JAX).

You recently booked this round trip, but you received word this past weekend that the flight has been cut from JetBlue's schedule — one of 37 routes to get the ax in one fell swoop.

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While JetBlue's schedule changes this past weekend were an outlier in the sheer size of the cuts, regular — and disruptive — schedule changes from airlines have become the norm, rather than the exception, since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect the industry in March 2020. During that month, as demand rapidly dried up, airlines around the world repeatedly pushed through massive schedule cuts — by double-digit percentage points — in single, sweeping updates.

Those changes have frustrated not only customers but also regulators, who’ve increasingly been pushing carriers not to publish schedules they cannot realistically fly.

"I think airlines truly do believe that they, at some point, will be able to fly those schedules," Robert W. Mann, an aviation consultant and former airline executive, said. "But they also know from almost three years of experience that there's very little penalty for not doing so."

Most airlines, with the notable exception of Southwest Airlines, file schedules 330 days in advance on a rolling basis. The schedule that's filed that far out is more aspirational than realistic; in many ways, it's a reflection of what airlines operated in 2019, or had hoped to operate in 2020.

More: United will cut flights from Newark as delays and congestion get worse

On Oct. 15, 2021, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines collectively had 561,022 flights on sale for August 2022, according to Cirium Schedule Snapshots. This month, there are actually 439,329 flights scheduled to operate among those three airlines. That is a nearly 22% cut since last fall.

"They will start off and they will get rid of routes that they say, "Well, we know this isn't gonna happen,'" Brett Snyder, who writes the airline industry blog Cranky Flier and operates travel agency Cranky Concierge, said. "And then they just kind of go from there."

Some of the cuts are still driven by COVID-19 restrictions, particularly in Asia, Snyder told TPG in an interview.

United, American and Alaska have all made operational schedule cuts. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

"This weekend, Delta just canceled much of Asia through the winter schedule," he said. "If you were to look at Asia in March [2023], I'd say it's probably pretty accurate as of now. Would they have known three months ago that Asia still wouldn't be open? Probably not."

There have also been instances where airlines make close-in cuts for operational reasons.

Starting with Alaska Airlines in April, a number of airlines have had to make close-in cuts to right-size schedules for staffing or other operational reasons. Delta made that move in May, while United cut as many as 50 flights per day from its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) beginning in July. American plans deep cuts at its Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) hub in the coming months.

By lightening their schedules, airlines give themselves more flexibility when something like staffing or weather goes unexpectedly wrong.

Then there are regular domestic schedule changes, which can be highly fluid.

"If you're looking at a domestic schedule for March, well, that's just not based in reality anyway," Snyder said. "So you have different parts of the schedule that seem accurate at different times."

When an airline does make a schedule change, it sets off an automated re-accommodation process — which can yield both acceptable and unacceptable results, Mann said.

"Some of that stuff will be acceptable to customers," he said. "Some of it won't be. Some cities will lose service entirely, in which case there really aren't any good options."

There is nothing wrong with booking far in advance — especially if you find a good deal, Snyder said. However, you have to be flexible and expect multiple schedule changes — especially during the pandemic era.

More: JetBlue removes 37 routes with big cuts hitting NYC and South Florida

"If you see a fare you like, go ahead, just make sure that you're flexible because what you book today is not what you're going to fly," he said, acknowledging that many flyers booking far in advance are likely to see changes.

Tips for dealing with schedule changes

Snyder's top tip for dealing with a schedule change is to know your carrier's rules related to the issue. Those rules are published on each airline's travel agency site (American, Delta, United) and can put you ahead of others in similar situations if you know what to ask for.

"If you know the rules, that's already a step up, so then you can say, 'All right, let's see if I could find something on my own,' which I always like to do because oftentimes if you're just calling someone or looking at the automated options online, that's not going to be the full subset of what you might be able to do," Snyder said.

More: Your flight is canceled or delayed – here’s what you should do next

He also recommends being persistent when calling airlines about schedule changes — especially when they want to just offer a refund to make a problem go away. Accepting a refund might sound like a good idea, but it could end up costing you more money than the refund to rebook once you cancel the ticket.

"In that case, that doesn't mean you can't still keep pressuring and say, 'Look, you know, you need to do something to fix this,'" Snyder said. "You may or may not get somewhere, but you don't have to take no for your first answer."

Sometimes — just sometimes — you might actually come out ahead due to a schedule change. Snyder shared a hypothetical of booking a flight for the Saturday after Thanksgiving with the hope of actually traveling that Sunday, which is historically the busiest travel day of the year. The Saturday flight might be cheaper than the Sunday flight, so you buy it even though it’s coming back a day earlier than you hoped. However, if the Saturday flight ends up being canceled and you're re-accommodated on Sunday, you come out ahead after all.

"People who really want to save a buck — I mean, there's a risk, this is a bet that you're taking — but you can look and see what the rules are," he said. "There is always the possibility to actually benefit from a schedule change if you're willing to play the game."

Featured image by (Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases