More time to book? Airline scheduling strategy just got a pandemic-era overhaul

Feb 17, 2021

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Whether the pandemic ends next month or next year, airlines are getting ready for your first post-lockdown vacation.

To that end, three U.S. carriers recently extended (or will extend) their schedules well into early 2022, giving pandemic-weary travelers a multitude of trip options.

While it’s not surprising to see airlines extend their schedules, what’s interesting is the differing ways in which they’re going about it.

On Thursday, Feb. 18, JetBlue will extend its schedule, which currently ends on Sept. 7. Historically, JetBlue has operated on the low-cost-carrier model of adding flights in months-long chunks.

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Going forward, the carrier confirmed to TPG that it’ll move to a rolling model, where flights are available for purchase from the current date to 331 days in the future.

That’s a notable strategy shift for the airline. In addition to offering customers a larger range of dates, this also aligns JetBlue’s schedule with the “Big 3” network carriers, which all operate on a similar rolling model.

For JetBlue, that means it can compete on tickets purchased well in advance.

The move also helps streamline JetBlue’s upcoming Northeast-focused partnership with American Airlines. Codesharing on flights to and from the New York and Boston areas is one of the key selling points of the tie-up, and aligning the booking window is likely a stepping stone in that direction. (Of course, JetBlue’s pilots still need to agree to the deal.)

Two of the nation’s other budget carriers recently extended their schedules, but for a different reason, reports Cranky Flier.

Both Frontier and Sun Country are currently booking travel through April 2022 — more than 14 months from now.

Most airlines can’t just extend the schedule for over a year from now and have a good grasp on its future route map and timetable. But for Sun Country (and likely for Frontier too), that’s not an issue.

Related: Wait to change or cancel your flight for a refund 

Minneapolis-based Sun Country told Cranky Flier that many travelers book the same trips every year. Whether it’s the annual pilgrimage to grandma in Florida or a winter escape to Aruba, this distinct booking pattern presented a problem for the carrier.

When customers first canceled flights due to the pandemic in early 2020, they might’ve booked for later in the year or in early 2021, only to cancel their plans once again when faced with new variants and a slower-than-expected vaccine rollout.

When it came time to rebook the trip for the third time, many customers were faced with an issue: their tickets were slated to expire before Sun Country’s 2022 schedule was available for booking.

That’s when the carrier decided to extend its schedule into 2022 — to get customers to redeem their expiring travel credit for flights they might actually take.

Regardless of the underlying strategy, extending schedules into 2022 underscores the way airlines are adjusting to the pandemic. With passenger traffic down significantly year-over-year, carriers are preparing for the day that demand bounces back, whenever that may be.

More: The full guide to airline schedule change polices

In an exclusive interview with TPG, American CEO Doug Parker said that “the problem is because the consumer doesn’t know. The consumer is saying, ‘when I feel safe, I really want to travel.’ I’m thinking that’s going to be six months from now. So none of us knows — is my point on this — when demand will return. That’s why you have to make sure you have your airline ready when it does.”

Of course, putting more dates on sale gives carriers more opportunity to capture the post-pandemic travel rush.

It also comes with a big downside for travelers: airline schedules might not stick. With last-minute schedule changes happening nearly every week during the pandemic, what airlines file today may not actually operate 12 months from now.

Featured photo by Matt Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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