United is now canceling empty flights — but you won’t find out until check-in
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.
Every airline is suffering from the significantly-reduced travel demand due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Given the ever-changing travel landscape and quarantine restrictions, airlines aren’t 100% sure which flights will fill up — and which ones won’t. Operating empty flights is costly and inefficient, and flexible change and cancellation policies can further stunt the number of passengers on a given departure.
That’s why United’s latest initiative aims to trim down the number of empty flights the carrier operates, though it may result in added inconvenience to select passengers.
For more travel tips and news, sign up for our daily newsletter.
United recently introduced a new program that analyzes flight loads to identify candidates for possible cancellation. Should the loads drop too low, United will consider canceling the flight — assuming that passengers and crew can be reaccommodated and the plane doesn’t need to be at the destination for another flight.
As first reported by Skift, this program apparently begins canceling flights within a week of departure. However, in an email to TPG, a United spokesperson indicated that it’s happening with much less notice.
“In the interest of operating as efficiently as possible with the least amount of disruption to our customers, we are proactively canceling flights that have few customers on board but have multiple departure opportunities available… When a cancellation occurs, we are proactively notifying impacted customers 18-24 hours ahead of their scheduled departure and automatically booking them on a new flight the same day or they may select an alternate flight that works best for them.”
Though the program began in mid-August, fewer than 1% of the carrier’s flights have been canceled. To be considered for cancellation, flights must have low load factors and multiple alternate segments available for rebooking. As such, the algorithm runs most frequently on flights between hubs or to major destinations.
Limiting last-minute cancellations to flights between large airports makes sense — United has more options to reaccommodate flyers without as much disruption.
If your United flight ends up getting canceled, you can select an alternate one that suits your schedule. You’re also entitled to a full refund, even if you booked a nonrefundable fare.
But sometimes you need to get where you’re going, and a refund doesn’t cut it. Unfortunately, with this new program, United’s breaking from the industry-standard practice of schedule integrity.
Before the pandemic, when an airline sold a flight, you could expect the carrier to operate it — barring unforeseen delays due to mechanical problems or weather issues. Now, however, United’s playbook has changed.
It’d be one thing if United canceled empty flights a week before departure, but notifying customers of cancellations during the check-in window is downright deceitful. At that point, it’s likely too late to rebook yourself on another carrier or cancel your planned trip.
If you’ve got an upcoming United flight, be sure to double-check how full it is. If there are lots of seats for sale, cross your fingers that the flight doesn’t get canceled.
And if you’re considering booking a new United flight, beware. If the flight doesn’t fill up, there’s a (small) chance the airline will ultimately cancel your flight within 24 hours of departure.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees