I’ve seen a handful of stories lately on the long-true fact that airlines sell schedules they don’t actually ever plan on flying. It was worse during the pandemic when schedules changed frequently… and up to a month or less before departure. Now we’ve settled back into a more traditional pattern which still leaves a lot of uncertainty for travelers. Today I’ll show you exactly what’s happening with one airline in particular, United, since it seems to change more frequently than most.
Your standard legacy airlines usually sell tickets on a rolling 331-day schedule. In other words, you can buy a ticket for 331 days from today and not beyond. Tomorrow, that window will be the same, but it just ends one day calendar later. That means that as of today, you can book flights up through early January 2024.
As an aside, low-cost airlines tend to operate differently and have set booking windows. Southwest is the largest of these. It was selling for travel through August 14, but this past weekend it extended its schedule through October 4. The schedules at these airlines tend to be more accurate since they go available for sale closer to departure. But let’s get back to the legacy airlines, and United in particular.
Below you’ll see a chart of United’s 2023 departures by day as filed this previous weekend. I’ve divided it into three separate categories.
Obviously, the first month on the chart is completely accurate (barring operational cancellations) since this is calendar year 2023. Those dates were already flown. But between now and the end of May, United’s schedule is largely accurate. You can see the bump up in March for spring break, and then it settles a bit. When I call this “accurate,” I mean it’s mostly correct. There will be some changes as we get closer, but for the most part, airlines try to get largely accurate schedules about 100 days in advance.
United, however, appears to have gone to a multi-tier model as we covered in Cranky Network Weekly this past week. Between June and Labor Day, United has introduced a modified placeholder schedule. This is different than the wildly-inaccurate schedule that’s posted post-Labor Day. It’s closer to being accurate, but it most definitely is not there. It will be whittled down week by week, some week with bigger changes than others, until it’s flyable.
In the summer schedule, you can see the different pattern to peak and off-peak day flying as compared to what’s scheduled earlier. It’s all part of the process that United seems to prefer, even though it results in multiple schedule changes for people who book further in advance.
This chart alone doesn’t show the depth of what changes, so we dug in deeper this week in CNW to show just how much different it is. I’ll bring some of the charts as created by Visual Approach into this post. Let’s start with a look at departures by narrowbody fleet type.
Here’s where you can see some pretty big shifts. In the June schedule, 737-700/800/900 flying jumps up dramatically in the schedule, but there is not massive number of new deliveries. You can see the 737 MAX goes down a little. Some of these will change, but there will also be flights canceled as we get closer in.
But then you can see what’s going on in September where it’s completely divorced from reality. For some reason, United removes nearly all of its MAX flights and has a very high level of A319/A320 flying. In some cases this will just be fixed by switching aircraft types and nothing else, but with each aircraft type also comes different block times and seating configurations. Changes are very likely.
If we go down further, here’s a deeper look at the regional fleet, and it’s even crazier.
The wild swing in flying by different airlines is not real. In particular, we know that Air Wisconsin is leaving United and will be flying for American instead. You can see that flying start to leave the United schedule until June when it inexplicably jumps back up. Then it really jumps in September. Air Wisconsin will not be flying for United then, but United is selling flights that it says will be operated by them.
At the same time, you can see how Mesa flying jumps up until June when it settles back down. Mesa will be putting its CRJ-900s that fly for American now into service with United. At this point, none of the CRJ-900s are in the schedule, but United has instead just filed a lot more Embraer 175 flying on Mesa, presumably ready to move airplanes around when it knows more detail about the transition. (My bet is that the initial move will take Embraer 175s from Houston and send them to Dulles, then that will be backfilled by CRJ-900s in Houston.)
It may be hard to believe that these inaccurate schedules can exist. I asked United for comment, but did not hear back. My guess, however, is that from United’s perspective, it probably doesn’t think it can put forth a correct schedule much further out, but it wants something in the market. And it presumably also figures that it will be able to provide travelers with a close-enough option to what they booked once the schedule settles. But that’s an opinion United has and not a fact that everyone can agree upon.
The number of changes can be mind-numbing. For example, I’ve been keeping track of a roundtrip from Newark to Jackson Hole that was booked for a Cranky Concierge client last June for travel this month. The changes have been frequent (shown in bold and italics).
- Original Booking: United 321 Lv Newark 1130a Arr Jackson Hole 234p, United 2155 Lv Jackson Hole 330p Arr Newark 947p
- June 2022: United 321 Lv Newark 1130a Arr Jackson Hole 234p, United 1120 Lv Jackson Hole 330p Arr Newark 947p
- July 2022: United 278 Lv Newark 1130a Arr Jackson Hole 234p, United 1120 Lv Jackson Hole 330p Arr Newark 947p
- August 2022: United 278 Lv Newark 10a Arr Jackson Hole 104p, United 1120 Lv Jackson Hole 155p Arr Newark 812p
- August 2022 part 2: United 2092 Lv Newark 10a Arr Jackson Hole 104p, United 2267 Lv Jackson Hole 155p Arr Newark 812p
- September 2022: United 2092 Lv Newark 10a Arr Jackson Hole 104p, United 1552 Lv Jackson Hole 155p Arr Newark 812p
- October 2022: United 1056 Lv Newark 906a Arr Jackson Hole 1212p, United 1552 Lv Jackson Hole 113p Arr Newark 730p
- December 2022: United 301 Lv Newark 906a Arr Jackson Hole 1212p, United 1552 Lv Jackson Hole 113p Arr Newark 730p
- January 2022: United 301 Lv Newark 906a Arr Jackson Hole 1212p, United 1552 Lv Jackson Hole 112p Arr Newark 729p
Are we having fun yet? Most of these are insignificant flight number changes, but they are still remarkably annoying. I think every traveler takes a deep breath when they see a “Your Schedule has Changed” email roll in.
But buried in here are the significant schedule changes. The first one in August isn’t more than 2 hours so it wouldn’t be eligible for a refund if the traveler couldn’t make the schedule work. Let’s forget that 90 minutes seems pretty material to me. The October schedule change actually would be cumulatively over 2 hours, but by then, the traveler may have already adjusted plans knowing they had no other choice after the first one happened. At least this isn’t on American, since American requires an unreasonable 4 hour change before allowing a refund.
So what we have here is a mix of regular monthly schedule changes that make minor shifts along with larger changes that make bigger adjustments as they get the schedule closer and closer to reality.
For United, I’m sure this makes sense, but for customers it’s a pretty miserable way to be handled. At least now you’ll understand better how it works.