How Does an Accident Impact an Airline’s Schedule? (Ask Cranky)

Today we’ve got an interesting Ask Cranky question from a curious reader . . .

Hey Cranky,

I read your column regularly and had a question you might be able to answer. What does an airline do to make up the capacity when a plane crashes? How do they operate minus a plane that would otherwise be zooming around earth full of people? With the spate of crashes lately I was curious how they plug the hole so to speak.


That’s a great question, and it’s one that a lot of people probably don’t think about. There are, of course a lot of factors involved in determining what happens to a schedule. First and foremost, it depends how much the fleet is scheduled before the accident. Larger airlines have spare aircraft in the fleet, so they can usually fill the hole, so to speak, fairly easily. Smaller airlines would have more trouble. I decided to turn to a couple airlines to see what they had to say about it.

First up, I asked Southwest. Now, you may not think of Southwest when it comes to losing an airplane, because they have a pretty clean record. You probably will remember, however, the 737 that ran off the runway in Burbank a few years back or of course, the one that ran off the runway at Chicago/Midway in the snow. Those airplanes weren’t about to re-enter service quickly, so this is an issue that affects more than just those who suffer through a catastrophic accident.

According to Southwest . . .

We generally have enough slack in our schedule to cover routes via aircraft swaps. Otherwise, a lease on an aircraft may be extended or an aircraft that may have been previously available for a charter could be reassigned. With over 530 aircraft in our fleet, there are a lot of options.

I also asked US Airways, which had the now-famous water landing of an A320 back in January. That plane also wasn’t about to return to service anytime soon. US Airways told me . . .

The short answer is there was enough slack in the system as we had already reduced capacity YOY for Jan. vs. 08 and were in the process of reducing system capacity even further (for 09 over 08).

So, like most airlines, they’ve been cutting back significantly so there is more fleet flexibility. You can see how for some airlines, it would be such an easy task. For smaller airlines, however, it would be much harder to cover the existing schedule. That means they would either have to cut back or look to lease in a new airplane to help plug the holes.

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