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Are Those Grounded Flights Really Running on Empty?

Transportation: Airlines deny that low sales cause cancellations. But some travel agents and others disagree.

July 21, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Ever had a flight canceled? Ever wonder why?

Despite vigorous denials from the airline industry, many travelers for years have suspected that when their flight is scrubbed because of "mechanical problems," the airline is really canceling it because it hasn't sold enough tickets.

Robert L. Crandall, chairman of American Airlines, has called this idea "one of the great fictions about the airline business." Yet when I called three experienced California travel agents to raise the issue, not only did each immediately say that airlines often cancel undersold flights, all three agents volunteered citations of recent cancellations they found dubious.

"They do it all the time, if they have a flight that's not selling well," said Shelly Weiner, a 14-year agent at Plaza Travel in Woodland Hills.

But airlines deny any deceptions in their flight cancellations.

"I don't know of it ever consciously happening," said United spokesman Tony Molinaro. On airlines that have flights radiating from "hub" cities, such as United, American or Delta, he added, canceling a flight because it was undersold "would screw up your scheduling system," putting planes, pilots and crews out of position for the next round of flights.

Following the same line of thought, Randy Petersen, the well-traveled editor of InsideFlyer magazine, said he doubts the agents' suspicions are founded in reality.

At American Airlines, spokesman John Hotard said he has never seen a flight canceled strictly for marketing reasons, and unlike several of his counterparts, Hotard cited numbers. He estimated that on a typical day, American logs just 12 to 14 mechanical cancellations out of 2,200-2,300 flights. In winter months, he said, the mechanical cancellations may be outnumbered by weather cancellations.

Travelers should keep in mind that airlines do not guarantee their schedules, and Department of Transportation officials say there's no law against canceling flights, whether for mechanical or economic reasons. And though there are legal provisions protecting passengers who are involuntarily bumped from overbooked flights, there is no law requiring airlines to compensate passengers whose flights are canceled.

Federal figures show that in May, the 10 largest U.S. carriers together canceled 7,044 flights for nonmechanical reasons such as weather and "operational factors"--roughly one of every 62 departures.

So shouldn't there be further statistics on mechanical cancellations to allay travelers' suspicions? Yes, there should. But airline representatives, in withholding those figures, say they could easily be sensationalized or misinterpreted. (Is the airline that cancels three flights in a week safer or more risky than the airline that cancels two?) And though the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration collect reams of statistics associated with airlines and safety, representatives say neither agency releases a tally of flights canceled for mechanical reasons.

"Our consumer protection division has found that airlines very seldom (cancel flights because of poor ticket sales) because they need to get their planes to the next destination in order to pick up the next load of passengers at the next point," said Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley. But as Mosley acknowledged, the department doesn't make it a priority to distinguish between delays and cancellations in most of its statistics, and doesn't release tables that break down reasons for flight cancellations.

In short, transportation authorities agree, it's nearly impossible to compare what an airline tells the public about a canceled flight with what it has told the government in its maintenance report filings. And perhaps because of that, travel agents aren't the only ones dubious of the claims of airline officials.

"I guess that they do [cancel flights for economic reasons], but I don't have any hard evidence," said Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. "It would be so easy for an airline to ground a flight for mechanical reasons--just have a flight engineer go in and unscrew a lightbulb."

"I'm willing to believe that it happens on occasion," said Con Hitchcock, attorney and aviation specialist for the Washington, D.C., consumer group Public Citizen. But, he added, "I'm also willing to believe it's not all that profound a problem, given the economics of hub-and-spoke schedules."

Meanwhile, of course, there are those travelers who spend more time worrying that airlines are understating, not overstating, their mechanical troubles. After the 109-fatality ValuJet crash in Florida on May 11 and the two-fatality Delta Airlines engine explosion in Atlanta on July 6, federal transportation officials vowed to tighten regulations. The airlines, in turn, pointed to an overall safety record that's difficult to criticize--two fatal accidents last year among 8.1 million departures.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845.

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