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

Apr 28, 2020

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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.

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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.”

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.

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