When you're packing for a summer or fall air trip, don't forget one item that might not be on your regular packing list: Plan B. That's because for at least the rest of the year, some airlines are cutting recently restored or newly added schedules, often with little advance notice. If you're flying on a heavily traveled route — Chicago to New York, for example or Los Angeles to San Francisco — you needn't worry. But if you're on a newer route that maybe didn't even have nonstop service in the past, you need some sort of plan to cope with drastic changes.
What's happening is simple: Airlines these days view new route expansion somewhat in the manner of the old trope, "Run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes it." Despite all the market research, detailed planning, and computer simulations, nobody really knows how many people will buy tickets on a new route until an airline starts flying and trying to sell tickets on it. In the post-pandemic rush to a new normal, lots of airlines have run a lot of routes up their flagpoles, and routes that didn't earn enough saluting quickly got pulled down.
The most iffy situations are with brand-new, low-fare lines. Both recent newcomers have focused on routes that previously had little or no prior nonstops, and therefore had no historical data to show whether or not there was a market. And both have made substantial changes on initial schedules within months of starting, mostly cuts:
• Avelo, the new line that started regional flying from a hub at Burbank last April, has already cut two of its destinations and cut frequencies on several others.
• Breeze, David Neeleman's new venture, started up in May with three hubs in the East, and it has already reduced frequencies on a third of its initial routes and suspended a handful of others.
Low-fare startups aren't the only lines to cancel newly established routes. Just last week, for Example, a report showed Delta as cutting six routes entirely, and the other lines routinely re-examine their routes and cut poor performers.
Your "rights" in these cases are problematic. In more usual cases, when an airline cuts a flight or route, its first offer is a transfer to an earlier or later flight. On a busy route, that's probably enough for most travelers. If an airline cancels a nonstop route completely, it can often offer a connecting itinerary at roughly the same time.
But the two newcomers — along with Allegiant — typically offer no more than four flights a week and only two on some routes, so there's no practical fall-back position. Breeze, for example, says you can cancel with no fees and future credits for a schedule change of up to two hours. That may be OK for a delay, but it's ridiculous for cancellation on a route that may operate only twice a week. And unlike the case with established lines, if one of the new lines cancels a flight, it doesn't have an alternative connection to offer you. Even an established line may have no useful itinerary to offer if it cancels a route completely or stops flying on the days you want to travel.
When an airline cancels a flight — or, in most cases, changes its schedule by three hours or more — Department of Transportation rules say you have an absolute right to a full cash refund, even on the most nonrefundable tickets. But getting your money back doesn't always get you where you wanted to go without additional hassle or cost. A last-minute replacement ticket may cost a lot more than the price of a canceled ticket, or seats might not be available at all.
I'm not suggesting that you avoid the startups and Allegiant. They offer some attractive fares and schedules. But I am suggesting that if you buy one of their flights — especially on new routes — you need to think about your options if the airline cancels your flight.