Over the last few years, it seems like airline schedule changes have become much more frequent. Now, on most US-based airlines, it’s extremely rare to book a flight and NOT have a schedule change. Why is this happening? My guess is that it’s all about efficiency… at the expense of customer convenience.
I consider Delta to be the king of making annoying schedule changes, so I went straight to the airline to see if I could get someone to talk to me about it. It’s been over a month since I asked and I’ve been unable to get anyone to talk. So all I can do is use the knowledge I do have and then speculate. Of course, this isn’t limited to Delta. United and American/US Airways all do it and it’s really annoying across the board. But we’ll stick with Delta here thanks to an example that impacted me and my family.
Back in December, my family booked a trip to Maui for this coming September. Most airlines usually open their flights for sale no less than 330 days before departure, and Delta is no exception. It had been selling tickets for September 2014 travel since October 2013, or two months before we booked our flights. While I don’t know if there were any schedule changes in those two months, since we booked there have been no fewer than 4 of them. Here’s the timeline.
Not only did flight departure and arrival times change, but so did the total flight duration. I wish I had an easy answer as to why this was happening, but I don’t. After all, there were so many changes that in the end, the final times (and I say “final” hoping nothing changes again) are within 5 minutes of the original flight schedule. So what’s the point of all this ridiculousness?
There are certainly reasons that some of these things can change. For example, the easy one is if the scheduled aircraft type changes. Some airplanes fly faster than others, so they would adjust the flight duration to match. But that didn’t happen here. It has always been a 757.
Flight duration can also change as they review historical performance. Maybe taxi times have gone down over the last few months, so Delta adjusts its times to match reality. Maybe there’s some scheduled work coming up at the airport that means that they pad times to make up for the expectation of longer time on the ground.
That certainly doesn’t explain Delta’s decision to push the flight to Maui 25 minutes later and then multiple changes later, pull it back in to the exact same departure time. That could very well be a gate issue. Delta has a lot of flights going from its gates at LAX. If it tweaks some flights, then others have to change too. It could be a flight to, say, Seattle that gets moved up because of competitive pressure. That change can cascade and impact dozens of other flights.
I just have this picture of some mad scientist sitting in a dark room in Atlanta trying to create the most efficient schedule possible every day. But there’s a problem with that. What’s a perfect fit for Delta can really, really suck for travelers. All of these schedule changes are NOT customer-friendly.
I’m starting from LA and flying nonstop to Maui for vacation, so this seems like a completely harmless change. And it is… for me. Others in my family are flying in from Phoenix, however. As these schedules have changed, it impacted their ability to connect in from Phoenix. Sometimes there was a legal connection, and sometimes there wasn’t. My parents got fed up. They’re flying Southwest in the night before. (I should point out that Southwest starts selling flights later than most airlines, but once the schedule it out there, it doesn’t change. I think that’s a technical limitation as opposed to a strategy, but it’s nice to know as a traveler that the schedule is firm.)
When you think about a business market, a half-hour change could make a big difference. But even worse are those flights that get canceled after they’ve already gone out for sale.
Back in March, we had a couple New Jersey-based Cranky Concierge clients who were flying into Rome and out of Venice during the winter holidays. They really wanted to fly nonstop so they opted to fly out of Philly because US Airways flew nonstop to both places.
Sure enough, in April, US Airways canceled the flight. It decided not to fly nonstop to Venice in the winter. They weren’t happy with US Airways, and neither was I, but all the legacy carriers do this all the time in many markets.
I understand why they do it. The airlines do a lot of forecasting and can see when flights are clearly not going to earn their keep. But you have to have some level of schedule integrity so people can feel comfortable booking your airline.
All of these schedule changes are simply frustrating. It seems to me that the pendulum has swung too far toward optimization and completely away from customer service.