Skip to content

Why airlines cancel flights at the last minute — and why it's good news for you

April 28, 2020
4 min read
Why airlines cancel flights at the last minute — and why it's good news for you
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a massive toll on airlines worldwide.

In response, they've cut their schedules and parked significant portions of their fleets. But these changes didn't just happen overnight. Instead, the U.S. carriers have taken a phased approach to route suspensions and cancellations.

Interestingly, this gradual slowdown has unearthed two interesting phenomena. The first is that most airlines seem to file all their schedule changes on Saturday nights. The second is that these airlines are waiting until the last minute to cancel flights.

For more travel tips and news, sign up for our daily newsletter

Let's start with an example of the latter. Well before the coronavirus brought America to a standstill, we booked a ticket for a colleague to review SAS's brand-new Airbus A350 in premium economy. As of writing, that flight is still showing as operating on schedule according to the SAS website. But here's the thing: if you try to book this flight today, it won't show up in your searches.

So, I dug further and pulled up the airline's schedule on ExpertFlyer. There, I found that SAS "zeroed out" the inventory, meaning that it's no longer taking new bookings — even though the flight hasn't officially been canceled yet. (ExpertFlyer is owned by the same parent company as The Points Guy.)

SAS isn't the only carrier to do this. Ever since I've taken over the change and cancellation beat for TPG, I've received countless emails and Instagram messages from readers expressing the same concern: "my airline's no longer taking reservations for my flight, but it's not officially canceled yet. What should I do?"

Turns out that there are a few reasons that airlines are waiting to cancel flights. John Grant, senior aviation analyst at OAG, explained that "at the moment, it’s a matter of airlines wrestling with planning and resolving each day flying on a daily basis." With schedules up in the air, it's much easier to cancel flights when airlines have a better sense for their daily operations.

Grant confirmed that the practice of removing a flight's inventory, but not officially canceling it, is designed to halt all new bookings. This way, there'll be less work to rebook passengers when the flight ends up getting axed. As Grant told TPG, "the volumes of work involved in rebooking passengers, advising them of changes, etc. is immense."

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Related: You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight — even if the airline says you aren’t

But, what if you've got an existing reservation for a flight that an airline has no intention of operating, but hasn't yet been canceled?

Be patient and wait until the formal cancellation comes through.

Although airlines aren't necessarily acting nefariously by waiting to cancel flights, this practice ends up working out to their benefit. Eager passengers who make voluntary changes before the flight is canceled aren't eligible for refunds later on when the airline inevitably cancels the flight.

That's why you should wait to make any changes because when an airline cancels your flight, it's considered an involuntary change. In this case, the ball's in your court. Not only are you eligible for a refund, but you can sometimes get a voucher with a generous bonus just by asking.

Related: Why airline schedule changes are loaded on weekends

The same strategy of waiting until the last minute applies in a post-coronavirus world. When there are blizzards and summer thunderstorms, don't expect airlines to refund your money or waive change fees until there are formal waivers or significant delays to your travel plans.

If you called a week before the storm, chances are the airline won't help you. But if you wait until a few hours before departure, odds are much higher that there's a waiver and a delay or cancellation to your flight. And then, you can get your money back or reschedule your flight at no cost.

Related: When is it time to call your airline?

So the next time you have an upcoming flight that doesn't look like it's happening, hold on. As you now know, the airlines have reasons for canceling flights just a few days before departure. Use that to your advantage to get the refund you deserve.

All photos by the author.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023