This week we’re launching the new “Ask The Examiner” feature. Have an airline industry question? Scott will field all airline industry questions and share the answers with readers! Our first question this week comes all the way from Alaska.
My flight last week was cancelled, and I noticed there were not a lot of people in the waiting area. One passenger said the airline cancelled this flight all the time because it was lightly booked. Is this true? How often does this happen? – Waylon W. (Anchorage, AK)
This is a great question, and one that is frequently asked. It’s a common myth that airlines cancel flights when load factors aren’t high enough to make money, but it fails to understand some basics of airline economics:
1. Airplanes don’t make money on the ground. Jetliners are very expensive, and whether they’re leased or owned outright, they cost their airlines a lot of money just to own, regardless of whether or not they fly. The incremental cost of operating a lightly booked flight is normally a pittance compared with the cost of keeping the plane put. The passengers have already cost the airline money in overhead. It costs the airline money to research markets, schedule airplanes, take reservations, and check passengers in for the flight. If it’s cancelled, that’s all been a waste.
2. Half the battle is below the floor. Many US carriers accept cargo and mail on passenger flights. While packages and letters don’t complain the way passengers do, airlines have freight forwarders and the US Post Office to answer to when these items are delayed. Revenue from these items can also mean the difference between profit and loss for a flight that does not appear to be heavily booked in the passenger cabin.
3. The airline itself is dependent on its own schedule. Flight cancellations cause a ripple effect through a large network carrier. The airline is scheduled to expect aircraft and the flight crews that operate them in certain cities at certain times. In simpler cases, such as a transatlantic journey, the destination city expects the aircraft to arrive in order to operate the return flight from that city, which may or may not be full. It simply doesn’t make sense to cancel a loss-making flight to save money if it would also require the cancellation of a full return flight. Airlines also don’t keep stocks of replacement aircraft available. Cancellation of a single flight leg often snowballs into cancellations of several flight legs because the aircraft may have been scheduled to operate through several cities where no substitute aircraft are available.
The Takeaway: Airlines exist to fly airplanes, not to cancel flights. Flight cancellations usually arise out of an insurmountable inability to operate the flight, and only after all other options have been exhausted. The incremental costs (such as fuel) that an airline would save by not operating an empty flight are a pittance compared to the costs (such as rebooking, refunds, and operational recovery) associated with a cancellation. SL
Have a question for Scott? Email [email protected] and I’ll respond! Submissions selected for publication will be edited for clarity and brevity. All submissions will receive a reply, but not all submissions will be selected for publication. Got that burning question about airlines? We’ll do our best to explain!