When data gets into the hands of people who don’t understand it, completely false stories end up being told. Maybe you saw the CNN article this week with the eye-catching headline “American Airlines cuts 31,000 flights from its November schedule.” It’s important to know that this is a gross misunderstanding of how American creates its schedule. This was a non-event, and I wouldn’t be writing about it if the record didn’t need to be set straight.
American, like all of the US network airlines, files a placeholder schedule that goes out for sale 331 days in advance. It’s a rolling schedule, so each day, one more day comes up for sale into the future so it’s a constant 331 days available for booking at any given time.
Because of this, American — along with others that follow this process — doesn’t put much thought into the schedules that are that far out. The airline just uses a previous schedule from a previous season that is a true placeholder and isn’t grounded in reality. When it gets closer to departure, American replaces that placeholder with something accurate. This will happen over time in fits and starts.
For example, you can book all the way out through July 15, 2023 right now, but that schedule for next summer is not real. The long-haul markets are usually solidified first, but even that hasn’t happened yet. As I’ve mentioned, this isn’t just an American issue. Take a look at United. It is also selling flights for next summer, but whether or not they’ll operate… your guess is as good as mine.
United makes a point of doing a big reveal of summer plans in the fall when it comes to international long-haul flying. Last year, it made its announcement on October 14. Until that happens, what you see is nothing worth mentioning. That’s why I could only laugh when the blogosphere breathlessly announced that United would begin Washington/Dulles – Berlin next summer. Yes that route is filed, but it was supposed to fly in 2022 and never did. The airline is probably using a carbon copy of that old schedule. It’s too early to know what will go.
For the domestic schedule, the window is even tighter. Historically, airlines have tried to finalize schedules about 100 days out. That really slimmed down to 30 days or so during the pandemic, but now it’s back to around 100 days again, for the most part.
The best way to illustrate this is with Cirium schedule data. This is the very data that CNN used to claim a huge 16 percent cut in Nov, but… well, let’s go to the chart.
American Airlines Departures By Day as Of August 13, 2022
So, you want to guess where this schedule veers off into ridiculousness? That’s right, it’s on December 1. (That huge dip beforehand is Thanksgiving Day, a normal occurrence.) From December 1, the schedule is insane. It has a flat daily schedule with a weird spike on Saturdays. The flying has no true day-of-week component to it like in previous months, and it is so far above what was actually flown this summer that it’s a joke.
Yes, November is lower than other months, but before Thanksgiving, that’s normal. And after Thanksgiving, I’d expect we’ll see more flights added back as demand shapes up. The point is that November looked like December until that cut a couple weeks ago, and while yes, thousands of flights were eliminated, none of them were ever planned to actually fly.
We can look at the other Big 3 airlines as well since I know you’re curious. Here’s United.
United Airlines Departures By Day as Of August 13, 2022
You can see something similar with United here in that nothing in 2023 looks even remotely close to realistic. But there is more here. Even November looks funny for United. You can see that pre-Thanksgiving period is higher than October with more pronounced variance by day-of-week. I’m not convinced they’re done there yet, and they definitely haven’t put any finesse into the winter holiday schedule. In Cranky Network Weekly, we track these things and only consider United accurate through October right now.
The real question to be asking here is… why is there not a more accurate placeholder put into place? Before the pandemic, schedules did change regularly but not to the sweeping extent that happened starting in March 2020. With networks remade, you would think the airlines would try to put something that’s at least a little closer to reality. American and United are probably struggling to find the right time to create a new placeholder, but I would hope that time is coming.
Delta, on the other hand, has already done work along those lines. Here’s that chart.
Delta Air Lines Departures By Day as Of August 13, 2022
You can see here that the 2023 schedule is clearly not right. It’s far too uniform compared to the 2022 plans, but it is much closer than what American and United have done. Delta has made it a point to create a better placeholder. That doesn’t mean there won’t be more changes — there absolutely will be — but hopefully it will be less disruptive than what American and United have.
So, you can ignore CNN’s story entirely. Yes American cut 16% of flights from its selling schedule, but that was never the schedule it planned to run. It was just a placeholder that has now become accurate. Maybe American will eventually realize that a more accurate placeholder would help stop bad stories like these from ever being published.
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