Changing travel patterns brought on by the pandemic have prompted the three major US airlines to begin a readjustment of their decades-old approach to flight scheduling.
American, Delta and United have largely built their schedules for years by focusing on the peak days and times of their corporate customers’ flights.
Now, driven by growth in hybrid business and leisure travel, as well as a persistent decline in managed business travel, which continues to lag 2019 levels by about 20%, those scheduled peaks and troughs could become less dramatic. That would mean less variability in flight frequency over certain days, between days of a given week, and even potentially between different times of the year.
“We are definitely seeing a shift towards a more level schedule by day of the week between the big three network operators,” said John Wickson, chief executive of Hospitio, a travel industry consultancy.
Using information provided by airline industry data company Milanamos, Wickson said American, Delta and United’s schedules this November shifted an average of 165 flights per day toward a fully level schedule seven days a week compared to 2019. .
“That may not sound like a lot, but it’s an average daily reduction of 28% in the typical day’s deviation from a fully leveled schedule,” Wickson said.
Five of the seven weekdays in November will have flight numbers closer to the Big Three’s global average number of flight operations per day of 11,799 than they had in 2019, Wickson said.
The adjustments match remarks made by United, American and Deta executives during recent earnings calls. Operators said the surge in demand during Thanksgiving will be less concentrated on one or two days this year and instead spread more evenly over the holiday week. A similar pattern is emerging in winter holiday bookings, as the many travelers no longer confined to an office extend their journeys and work from wherever they are.
Meet changing demand
Evidence of changing demand was also on display in September, with airlines reporting that the usual sharp drop in leisure flights did not materialise.
“It doesn’t feel like the summer is over, it’s that strong,” United’s global network senior vice president Patrick Quayle said in mid-September, referring to demand in Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe.
One adjustment United is already making to facilitate these new travel patterns will appear in transatlantic flight schedules this winter, as some city pairs that previously saw reduced service to five times a week will remain daily, Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said. . The carrier also cushioned its schedule during the typically slow start to December by a couple of percentage points to handle more even demand patterns throughout the month.
At American, chief commercial officer Vasu Raja said, network planners have seen growth in demand during normally quiet times of the week, such as Wednesday nights and Thursday mornings.
The carrier also experienced 2 percentage points of daily traffic movement from the peak business periods of before 8am and after 4pm to the periods in between.
Fewer flights to start the week
Still, while the Big Three have begun to smooth out their schedules, not all airlines are doing so.
Allegiant, which has long moved its schedule up and down based on the day of the week in a much steeper pattern than the big three carriers and has never relied on commercial traffic, has only made those weekday differences more substantial, Wickson said.
An analysis of flight schedule data provided by the OAG for the second full week of October shows that, globally, airlines reduced their share of flights, relative to 2019, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while increasing slightly the proportions during the traditionally busy days of Friday. and sunday On the normally slow Saturday, however, flight schedules were also tightened.
Rebecca Rowland, an OAG analyst and partner at British consultancy Midas Aviation, said those figures point to the shift in share towards leisure travel that the airline industry has seen since the start of the pandemic.
But, said airline industry analyst Bob Mann of RW Mann & Co., each carrier will respond to changing demand patterns according to its own business models and target customers.
“The planning cycle used to be kind of heavy, an 18- to 24-month process,” he said. “Now, it’s maybe an 18- to 24-day process and then a month for it to be implemented. I think the industry has done a really good job of speeding up the planning cycle.”