Why Are Airlines Selling Tickets For Flights That May Not Happen?

Passengers booking flights for later this year might be surprised to see some airlines selling quite robust flight schedules. However, those schedules are not exactly accurate right now. Most of those flights, just based on demand, will not be flying, but are available for passengers to continue to book them. Here’s why.

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Most flights for sale this July and August likely will not fly. Photo: Getty Images

Why airlines are selling flights that may not happen

Before the current crisis, most airline schedules were pretty solid. That is, there were few cancellations on the airline’s part due to non-mechanical or labor issues, and people could generally trust that, when they book a flight, they’ll be able to fly.

However, in the current world, many of those flights showing available for booking will not operate at all. Take, for example, New York to Los Angeles. Collectively, next week, Delta, JetBlue, Alaska, American, and United are selling about 14 flights per day on that route. Fast forward two months to August, then there are almost 50 flights operating per day on that route.

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Delta traditionally flies Boeing 767s between New York and Los Angeles. Photo: Getty Images

The likelihood of all 50 flights operating is slim to none. Most airlines will probably end up flying about 3-7 flights on that route each day, or anywhere between 15 and 35 flights per day. Most likely, there will be about 25-30 flights operating that day between New York and Los Angeles, given that travel numbers have been going up.

This means that airlines are selling more flights than will operate. In part, because airlines have not yet updated their August schedules. In fact, most monthly schedules are still being loaded a few weeks in advance. American, in fact, recently instituted some of its schedules for July with further changes likely.

American Airlines reduces international capacity with 10% due to coronavirus
American recently announced an increase to its summer schedules. Photo: Getty Images

But, this serves as a way for airlines to test demand. Depending on which flights are the weakest, they can tweak schedules and consolidate flights. But, on other routes, that is not exactly possible– especially where airlines are only flying once per day.

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A way to earn some revenue

By offering more flights for sale, airlines can give the illusion of flexibility. But, when flights get canceled, then offer passengers a few options. Most passengers will probably want a refund. Although, that may be easier said than done in most cases. Otherwise, airlines will try and give passengers alternate routings or else convince them to hang on to flight credits instead and keep some cash in the airline’s hands.

Airlines do know that most of the flights they are selling are not going to fly. So, instead, they hope to consolidate flights, re-book passengers, or convince passengers to take vouchers in lieu of a full refund.

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Spirit is one airline trying to incentivize vouchers for passengers. Photo: Getty Images

How do I know if my flight will operate or not?

This is something that you likely won’t be able to tell right away. You can probably get some insight based on seat maps. That is, if a flight appears to be going out full based on a seat map, then the likelihood of an airline canceling that flight is much lower. Although, with international flights, travel restrictions could further prevent an airline from flying.

But, you can also take a look at current schedules and get some clues. Through the end of August, airlines will not be flying their full schedules. Instead, an increase of about 10-25% depending on the route and airline should be expected– although it could be higher or lower. While that will bring back some nonstop service, it is not a guarantee that an airline will maintain those flights, so be aware in case you end up with an unexpected connection.

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Airlines will load their flight schedules for the summer in the coming weeks. Photo: Getty Images

What happens if my flight is canceled?

If your flight is canceled, you have a couple of options. Some airlines are offering incentives for passengers who take on a flight credit– such as having it grow in value over time or else offering bonus miles. Other airlines are instead pushing alternate travel arrangements.

However, the US Department of Transportation has been clear, if an airline cancels your flight and you do not accept a credit or alternate itinerary, then you are entitled to a refund, although airlines may drag their feet a bit.

Do you think airlines should be allowed to sell tickets for flights that will not happen? Let us know in the comments!