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United Develops System to Cancel Low Load Flights

A United 737-800 in San Francisco (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ben Suskind)

Generally when comparing airlines in the United States, one naturally gravitates towards Delta Air Lines. It runs a great operation and generally, people are very happy flying them. The other airlines always try to be like Delta but rarely does it succeed. In an industry where decisions often are based on how the market reacts to something, Delta has done there is one place United Airlines has actually separated from the pack.

It’s with their programmers who build massive systems to leverage big data to cut costs and drive efficiency.

United Treats Customers Well

Last summer United Airlines rolled out a new system called ConnectionSaver. It was something so obvious that one would imagine it’s already in place but it actually was industry-leading. What United did was have their programmers create a system that scans flights for customers making tight connections and looks at many variables to determine if it’s worthwhile to delay the passenger’s connecting flight without inconveniencing other customers or creating a ripple effect that would delay flights later in the day.

The system is brilliant. It takes into account so many variables down to where the passengers are seated on the plane and how far they have to walk to the next gate. If the algorithm determines that delaying the connecting flight will not have a significant impact on the timeliness of the flight it will hold the flight for the connecting passengers to arrive. It will factor in things like weather, airport congestion, air traffic control and more.

When this system launched I wrote that the program wasn’t getting enough attention. Something this well done needs to be plastered front and center everywhere for passengers to know. It was one of the most passenger-friendly enhancements of 2019. However, this program flew under the radar for the most part.

United Sticks it to the Consumer

Nevertheless, the gifted programmers at United are at it again with a program that is considerably less consumer-friendly.

It’s not uncommon for an infrequent traveler to say a flight was canceled because there were too few passengers. In the pre-COVID world generally did not happen. That plane and the crew have places to be and things to do. Aircraft fly multiple legs per day and flight crews work on multiple flights a day. If one flight in the sequence of flights is cancelled it impacts all the other flights that the aircraft and that crew were to operate later in the day. Airlines generally would not cancel flights if the load was light since the flights later in the day might have more passengers.

That has changed for United, as reported by Brian Sumers at Skift. The airline tasked its programmers to create a very clever algorithm to cancel flights within seven days of departures if load factors fall too low and accommodate the passengers onto other flights. According to an internal message flights with load factors below 30 percent are likely to be impacted.

So far United says that it is being used on fewer than 1 percent on flights and 77 percent of affected customers arrived within four hours of their originally scheduled time with one-third arriving early.

This is a purely cash conserving strategy and is a terrible idea for customers.

Over in Europe, airlines can cancel flights up to 14 days before departure and dodge the requirement to pay compensation. Since the outbreak, this has been happening frequently as airlines look to save cash as much as possible.

Arrival Time Not Guaranteed

First of all, this didn’t happen in the pre-COVID era because business travelers had places they needed to be and booked flights because of the reliability to get somewhere when they needed to. Now with business travel nearly non-existent, there are fewer high-value passengers who will be annoyed by this strategy.

It’s primarily the leisure travelers that United is taking advantage of. The airline is giving the illusion of a flight schedule but in reality, it has implemented a system to not honor their schedule on purpose. 77 percent of customers arrive within 4 hours. That’s a severe inconvenience, especially for arrivals later in the day. This also means that a quarter of passengers were inconvenienced for more than 4 hours. It’s unacceptable to sell a flight based on a schedule and then go ahead and throw the schedule out the window because the flight ended up being too empty.

One-third of passengers arriving early is considerably worse. It could be an afternoon departure turned into a 6:00 a.m departure. That means things like dropping off kids with a caretaker the night before or in the early hours of the morning. That means people who planned on working a half-day before catching up a flight have to use up more time off. People who rely on public transportation have to figure out different schedules.

It’s an insane policy that completely disregards the passengers and their time. From now on booking a ticket on a United flight means that you’ll get to your destination at some point vs when you originally intended too. This impacts anyone who has any vestige of life.

The airline is also making it a blatant cash grab by the airline since the more desirable timed flights are often priced higher than less desirable times. One could assume that flight with the more desirable flight time would have lighter loads due to higher fares and would subsequently be canceled. Will United proactively reach out to these customers and refund the difference in the pricing?

In a time when the airline is taking fistfuls of money from taxpayers and asking for more the least it could do is be a little respectful to them.

Hemal Gosai


  • Hemal Gosai

    Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

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