It’s time for another Ask Cranky question, and you United frequent fliers will probably be very interested in this one.
Really curious about something; hoping you can answer it on your blog (or otherwise).
Why does United have flight numbers that seem to change day to day / week to week? Maybe I’m imagining it, but it seems more haphazard than other airlines’ flight numbering schemes.
See e.g. on United’s timetable PDF, all the 7:44AM flights from FLL to DEN. There are a bunch of different listings — a few of them share flight #s, but most of them don’t, even though they’re the same times/same equipment.
I keep noticing this when I want to see whether today’s flight 123 came in on time yesterday (for fun, mostly), and yesterday’s flight 123 is a completely different segment.
You are not seeing things, Tevi. United does seem to vary its flight numbers a lot, and it’s really strange. I went to United to get some answers on this one.
To start, it’s important to keep in mind that flight numbers are scarce resources. Every system is coded to have four-digit flight numbers and no more. That was fine back in the day, but today with mega-carriers and codeshares, that’s not really enough anymore. The cost involved to move to a five-digit flight number is substantial, and I don’t imagine it’s going to happen anytime soon. Gone are the days where even-numbered flights went one direction and odd-numbered flights went the other, with flight numbers not changing for years. Airlines today need to do what they can to maximize flight number usage.
During mergers, things get even more compressed as airlines end up having to codeshare with each other. During United’s merger with Continental, the numbers were carved up. Most of pre-merger Continental’s long haul flights used numbers between 1 and 199. Pre-merger United used 200-999 (with most Asian flights using the historic 800 series and European flights using the historic 900 series). Pre-merger Continental shorter haul flying fell into the 1000-1764 range (with a few cutouts in the middle). Above that? Express carriers (with each carrier having its own dedicated range) and then codeshare partners beyond that. You can follow it all the way up to United flight 9998, a flight from Brussels to Vienna operated by Brussels Airlines.
That’s a lot to pack into 9,999 flight numbers, and United decided to get creative. So it was back in late 2012 when United introduced a new system that would optimize flight numbers. It would randomly look at the schedule every day and, using some parameters, would spit out a list of flight numbers to be used. What were those parameters?
There were the usual things, like trying to keep prominent flight numbers on regular routes (mostly long haul). But it was more than that. Even though the need for segregating United and Continental operations by flight number range had passed, United opted to continue to do things along those lines for operational reasons. It’s not actually a strict Continental/United breakdown anymore. It’s more about fleet type. For example, there are some 737-900s that were technically delivered to the United side and those operate under the same flight number ranges as the other 737-900s on the Continental side.
The airline apparently liked this internally because it could know a lot about a flight just by looking at the flight number. But this didn’t consider that from a customer perspective, it was really confusing.
For example, let’s stick with Ft Lauderdale to Denver. Today, United has a 320p flight on an A320. That’s flight 780. But tomorrow, it’s a 630p flight on a 737-900. That’s flight 1571. On Saturday, it’s back to a 325p flight on an A320 but the flight number is 764.
But that’s not all. The morning flight leaves at 744a today as flight 1452 on a 737-900. Tomorrow it’s a 737-800 and moves to flight 1758. Sunday, it’s back to a 737-900 but it now leaves at 736a. It’s flight 1736. Monday it’s still a 737-900 but it leaves at 746a and it’s flight 1660. What gives?
Some of the problem lies in shifting daily schedules. These days, airlines optimize their schedules by day, so it’s easy to just re-optimize every day and not really worry about consistency during the week. That’s how United has run things for the past couple years.
Most airlines don’t switch things around so much, and United has apparently decided to change its ways as well. According to a spokesperson, the April schedule change is going to have a new focus on trying to keep flight numbers regular. Now, flipping through Ft Lauderdale to Denver doesn’t show much regularity, but maybe it’ll become more apparent in other markets.
But do passengers even really care? Many don’t think twice about the flight number, but frequent fliers are likely to notice. And even though it’s a small group that might care, it’s apparently enough that United has decided to make a change. Keep an eye on that April schedule.