Grounding Fuel-Based Flight Cancellations

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Delta Air Lines caused a stir among passengers last week by admitting to something that has long been suspected as common in the industry. The carrier acknowledged that for more than a month it had canceled some flights as late as two days before departure because the planes weren't full enough.

Delta, which is restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, said it began the practice to save fuel after Hurricane Katrina sent already high fuel prices skyrocketing. By filling up one plane with passengers scheduled for two flights, the airline was able to conserve fuel.

The tactic sparked outrage among some of Delta's frequent fliers who said they were now leery of flying the airline for fear they may end up stranded at the airport or missing an important meeting. Rebecca Hughes, a software developer from Alexandria, said the practice was enough to make her look at flying another airline whenever possible.

"When you're traveling for business, you're likely to be between meetings and between cities when they cancel your flight, which means you could miss connections and miss meetings," Hughes said. "Have you ever tried to rebook a flight with just two days' notice?"

The outrage found its way to the frequent flier chat board Flyertalk.com, with dozens of Delta passengers questioning the airline's policy. "What a stupid policy. As a business traveler, I prefer to know where I'm going to be in two days with some degree of certainty," wrote one Flyertalk member, Ryerflyer.

Within days of acknowledging the practice, Delta announced Friday that it would no longer cancel flights based on the number of seats filled, saying that fuel prices had stabilized. "It was a temporary measure. We said we wouldn't do it forever," said Delta spokeswoman Benet Wilson.

The brouhaha raised fresh doubts among passengers about whether airlines regularly resort to the practice. Was Delta, in effect, merely guilty of publicizing an industry-wide cost-cutting strategy? travelers wondered. "We've always thought airlines do this; Delta isn't the first," said Chicago insurance consultant Marion Jenkins.

The government is suspicious about airline cancellations at the last minute -- after passengers have arrived at the airport. The Transportation Department's inspector general's office said last month it was beginning a new round of investigations into the airlines' customer service practices, revisiting one that was undertaken six years ago. As part of the study, the government will look into whether airlines abruptly cancel flights because of low demand and inform passengers that the cancellations are due to mechanical problems or poor weather.

"There has been a problem with flights cancelled at the last minute and on a regular basis and we are going to be looking at that," said David Barnes, a spokesman for the inspector general. The study will assess other customer service problems, including lost luggage. Barnes said a completion date for the study has not been set, adding that the first study took 14 months.

Most airlines say they don't cancel flights at the last minute because of low passenger levels. The airlines say such cancellations don't make sense because the aircraft or the crew is often needed for another flight originating in another city. Canceling a flight at the last minute could cause a ripple throughout the airline's network. The airlines also say they try to avoid the cancellations for fear of inconveniencing passengers.

In some cases, however, airlines do cancel flights based on the number of booked passengers. For example, if a Northwest Airlines flight with 100 passengers has a mechanical problem and another Northwest flight with just 20 passengers has an operable plane, the carrier will put the 100 passengers on the good plane and make the 20 passengers wait for repairs to the other plane or take another flight.

The objective is to "inconvenience as few customers as possible," Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said.

US Airways has a similar policy, spokesman Carlo Bertolini said.

Northwest also uses the number of passengers aboard to decide which flights to send to weather-slowed airports. Planes carrying the bigger loads go first, while the flights with fewer seats filled will have to wait. Another scenario in which airlines look at passenger loads when operating a flight is during bad weather. If an airport is limiting landings, Northwest will determine which flights to operate based on the number of passengers on each aircraft. Flights with the fewest passengers must wait, Ebenhoch said.

Some travelers see the last-minute cancellations as a trade-off for low fares.

Washington attorney James F. Rogers said that if his flight were abruptly canceled, he wouldn't complain as long as he was rebooked on another within an hour or two of his original one. "It would be hard to complain, especially if it helps keep fares down generally and helps them stay in business," he said.

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