How airline cutbacks will affect your travel

George Hobica, June 05, 2008
Fares from Washington DC:

    If you've been watching the news, you already know that airlines are planning pretty substantial reductions in flights, fleets, and personnel. Continental is the latest airline to announce big reductions. Its mainline fleet of about 375 planes will shrink to about 344 by the end of next year, a reduction of 8 percent. They'll also cut 3000 jobs. United may cut back as much as 18 percent; American has announced a 12 percent cut. Delta will reduce capacity by at least 10 percent. This article in USA Today shows where many of these cuts will land.

    How will it affect you?

    First, pretty obviously we'll see fewer seats at the lowest fares. Oh, there'll still be low fares. Airlines are addicted to them. But the cheap seats will have fewer travel dates, will sell out quicker, and you'll have to learn how to do a flexible date search to get a cheap seat.

    But more importantly, if you have already purchased a ticket for future travel, or are planning to do so, you may discover that your flight no longer exists when it comes time to fly.

    This is where the most pain will be caused. You'll get a call (if you're lucky) from the airline telling you that your nonstop flight from Boston to San Diego is now a connecting flight. And you're leaving two hours earlier than originally scheduled (set that alarm for 4 AM!); or your return flight will require an overnight stay in Houston. We're already seeing this sort of thing, but it will get worse.

    Or, worse, sorry, we don't serve that city anymore, so you'll have to buy a last minute ticket on another airline for twice the price.

    What you can do if there's a switcheroo

    In such cases, you might decide that you don't want to take the trip at all. Or if you do want to make the trip, you may end up paying a much higher fare on another airline. And in the case of a "forced" overnight stay, the airline probably won't pick up your hotel bill and meal costs. You do have a choice: you can tell them to cancel your reservation and give you your money back, even on a non-refundable ticket. (Beyond that, sorry, but the airlines clearly state in their customer service terms and contracts that their schedules are not guaranteed.)

    And you can build in extra time in your schedule. If your event or meeting ends at 3 PM and you're hoping to catch a 5 PM flight home, it might make sense to plan or a 7 PM return instead.

    And... be sure to call your airline at least once between the time you buy your flight and the day of departure to see if the schedule has changed. Don't expect that they'll inform you (or that Travelocity, etc.) will call you. They may, they may not.

    Frequent flyer miles

    If you thought it was tough cashing in those miles for free flights, just imagine what's going to happen when there are fewer seats and flights to choose from. Now might be a great time to consider a cash back credit card instead of an airline-affiliated frequent flyer credit card.

    If there's any silver lining here, perhaps with all these grounded planes there will be less congestion--and fewer delays-- in the skyways and on the runways.

    But until the dust settles, it's going to get ugly out there.