Why Do Airline Routes Get Cancelled?

As any frequent flier knows, airlines often change their routes. Whilst many major routes between key cities remain, flights to smaller cities or some hub airports may change frequently. This article takes a look at a few of the main reasons why airline routes get changed and canceled.

British Airways
What are the reasons for airlines making changes? Photo: Getty Images

No longer economical

Airlines will, of course, put effort into deciding on new routes and destinations. Route planning is a vital part of any airline operation and airlines look carefully at passenger demand forecasts, other competitor activity, aircraft availability, costs, and other factors.

Sometimes, though, this doesn’t work out as planned in reality. This could be due, for example, to fewer passengers wanting to fly the route than expected, problems with pricing, or connecting traffic not working as planned.

Ryanair ticket counter
Airlines will plan routes based on passenger demand, but this can change. Photo: Getty Images

There can also, in some cases, be subsidies offered for certain routes that can change or be withdrawn over time. Some say this was a possible factor in British Airways canceling its route from London to Chengdu in 2016, although this is not confirmed.

Whatever the reason, if the economics are not working after some time, the airline will likely cancel the route. A good example of this is American Airlines with its new route from Chicago to Beijing in 2010. This was stopped in 2018 with reported revenue coming in around $80 million under target.

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Changes in competition

Airlines will sometimes start routes following the plans of other airlines. This can be to maintain their brand in the market and/or to limit other airlines’ ability to ‘steal’ their passengers. With multiple carriers operating the same route, some carriers may well have to withdraw.

American Airlines
Competition for routes from key hub airports such as Dallas can be intense. Photo: Getty Images

This happened when Icelandair and WOW Air both started a route between Dallas and Reykjavik. American soon followed and, as the dominant airline in the area, this soon led to both Icelandair and WOW Air dropping the route.

Cargo could be the reason, not just passengers

Airlines operate flight routes and make money based on cargo loads as well as passengers. Although passenger demand and cabin occupancy are more visible to us, the freight carried is important to the airline as well. A route may fail to perform as expected in this area, or there could be changes in the original cargo supply that lead to the route being canceled.

KLM cargo
Remember that cargo is important to airlines as well as passengers. Photo: KLM

Aircraft availability

Airlines have a limited fleet, with orders and acquisitions of new aircraft being a much longer process than changing routes. If an airline sees a new route they want to begin operating, this will often come at the expense of canceling others, even if they are successful. You see this several times a year when major airlines announce changes for their next season’s flight schedules.

Airline financial problems

Route cancellations could also be due to airline economics, rather than specific route performance. Airlines that are struggling internally or financially often cancel routes to lower costs or restructure.

South African Airways, Flight Cancellations, Cash Worries
South African Airways has canceled a number of routes as cash worries continue. Photo: Getty Images

Safety or government warnings

And finally, there are times when route cancellations are outside the control of the airline. This could be due to closure of airspace (at the destination or en route), or due to safety deteriorations in particular areas. This happened with Qatar Airways for example in 2017, when several Arab countries banned the airline from entering their airspace.

Qatar Lyon flights
Qatar Airways had to cancel several routes when other countries banned it from their airspace. Photo: Qatar Airways

In many cases, this may end up being a short term situation, or it could be some time before routes are re-established.