Since the dawn of time (or computer reservation systems), airlines have generally coalesced around the idea of taking bookings no more than 330ish days before travel. Newer, low-cost airlines have often had a shorter booking window, but now that’s changing. Both Frontier and Sun Country have extended their booking windows beyond one year, and I spoke with Sun Country to learn why.
Instead of a rolling schedule that pushes forward one day at a time like legacy airlines, low cost carriers have generally set booking windows on specific dates. For example, Southwest is taking bookings for travel through August 16. Allegiant is booking through August 17, and Spirit is at September 7. They will extend their schedules a couple months at time when they are ready. Frontier and Sun Country are no different in that regard. They are just booking well into next year.
Frontier is currently booking travel through Febuary 16, 2022. Sun Country is booking all the way through April 18, 2022. That is just… so far away. With people actually booking closer to departure these days, why would anyone bother booking that far out?
As mentioned, I spoke with Sun Country about this, so I’ll be focusing on their answers, but I imagine much of this is similar at Frontier. This can be tied to Sun Country’s chase of the endless summer (aka the highly seasonal nature of Sun Country’s business) along with the way its airfare credit structure works.
When you buy a ticket on Sun Country, the ticket is valid for one year from the date of issue. You can make a change or you can cancel 60+ days before departure, and there is no fee to put the full amount into a dollar voucher which can be used for any flights during the validity. If you cancel between 14 and 59 days before departure, your voucher loses $50 per flight segment as a penalty. And if you cancel less than 14 days before departure, the penalty rises to $100 per segment. Since most people are flying nonstop, roundtrip on Sun Country, you can double those numbers to get an accurate expected cost.
Before January 26, 2021, if you canceled your trip, Sun Country would allow you to use that flight credit for travel any time as long as you booked it within a year of the original ticketing date. That’s different than legacy airlines which generally require (during non-COVID times) that travel be completed within a year of the original ticketing date.
Think of it this way, let’s say you bought a ticket on February 1, 2020 to flee Minneapolis/St Paul for, oh, I don’t know, Aruba, on April 1, 2020. Then COVID came around and the flight may not have been canceled so you couldn’t get a refund, but you weren’t going. You canceled your trip and had the money sitting in a flight credit that had to be used before February 1, 2021.
Fast forward to January 2021 and your credit is almost expired. You aren’t going to Aruba in 2021, because of COVID and all the related hassles, so you want to hope to use it for next year’s annual pilgrimmage in 2022. Up until recently, you were out of luck. Sun Country wasn’t booking out into 2022, so you couldn’t use your credit to do it before it expired on February 1, 2021. That is bad news for the traveler, and really it’s bad news for the airline too. Remember, low cost carriers make a ton of money on ancillary services, and if people don’t book a trip, the airline gets no ancillaries.
Seeing this problem on the horizon, Sun Country apparently did extend some ticket validities, but then it fixed the problem in a better way. It just decided to start selling tickets for the 2022 season so people could use their credits before they expired.
This doesn’t make sense everywhere since airlines really have no idea what they’ll be flying more than a year from now, but Sun Country is a special case. As anyone from Minnesota undoubtedly knows, when it’s winter, it’s time to get out of there and warm up. Sun Country explained that they have a lot of families that book the same trips year in and year out, and it’s surprisingly predictable what demand will look like. The 2022 schedules it puts out are likely to stick more than at most carriers.
More importantly, even if the flights are canceled in a schedule change, then the clients will be made whole with a refund, assuming there isn’t a flight around the same time. That might not be an ideal scenario, but it is far better than just making it impossible for people to use their credits.
Now, the funny thing is that this wouldn’t have been a huge issue for a clever traveler. The old flight credits at Sun Country, when used, would then restart the clock on validity from the date of the ticket reissue. Still, it’s not easy to find an exact match on price, and most people probably weren’t going to play this game of booking something and then changing it later. Plus, this loophole was closed late last month. All future vouchers (no longer called flight credits) always retain the original ticketing date and have one year to be used, no matter how many times they get rebooked.
This all makes some sense, but it doesn’t explain one other thing… how on Earth did it actually make this happen? Airline technology is strangely bound by ancient code. For example, airlines could really use 5 digit flight numbers (or alpha-numerics), but the investment required to do that is enormous. Back in the day, the idea of needing 9999 flight numbers for a single airlnie was so unfathomable that it wasn’t even worth thinking about. Today, with codesharing so prevalent, airlines run out of numbers. Yet nothing has changed.
That led me to wonder just what the heck Sun Country and Frontier had to do in order to enable booking more than a year out. The answer is… not much.
Both airlines use Navitaire’s New Skies reservation system, and that is a newer technology platform. There is no restriction in the Navitaire system on dates, so it was readily able to handle this. Yes, some website work was required. They had to make sure to integrate years into the search and display areas, for example. But that is all minor.
The real problem is in the clunky old Global Distribution Systems. For example, if I go in to Sabre and try to find a flight from Minneapolis to Aruba in April of 2022… I can’t. The entry does not include a year in Sabre, so I can only pull up flights during the very next April, April 2021. That means if I go to Expedia… I see the same thing. It means you have to book direct or wait.
Maybe some day that will get fixed but for an airline like Frontier or Sun Country, it really doesn’t matter. They take limited numbers of bookings through third party channels anyway, and those are more likely to be closer in. The credit problem isn’t going to exist in those cases, and that’s really what Sun Country is trying to solve here. Besides, maybe it can convince people to start booking direct by offering options that don’t exist elsewhere… while still capturing the extra low-fare demand that online agents provide closer to departure. It’s not a bad plan at all.