United Airlines is Cancelling Some Mostly Empty Flights, using an algorithm that takes into account the number of passengers on the flight, whether the passengers can be rebooked onto another flight, and where the aircraft and flight crew are needed later that day, per Skift. The flights are being cancelled relatively last minute, within 7 days prior to departure.
The algorithm has been used since August 14, 2020, and can be overruled by managers. According to United, it's affecting fewer than 1% of flights, and 77% of the affected passengers arrive within 4 hours of their originally scheduled flight time.
Under normal, non-pandemic conditions, United Airlines and other legacy carriers such as American Airlines and Delta Airlines would never resort to cancelling previously scheduled flights even if they were few passengers on the flight, since some passengers might be high value business class passengers or frequent flyer elites, tarnishing the airline's reputation as a reliable carrier, and the aircraft and/or crew would likely be needed at the destination to fly other flights that day.
Given the pandemic, however, most companies have sharply cut back or eliminated corporate business class travel, and flight schedules have also been reduced.
What to Do If United Cancels Your Flight
Earlier in the coronavirus pandemic United was notorious for playing games with its refund policies (see United Schedule Change Refund Policy: 25 Hours and United New Schedule Change Policy: Refund After 1 Year). Fortunately, United, under pressure from passenger DoT complaints, has come full circle, such that United is again permitting full refunds when there's a 2 hour schedule change, which was the airline's original refund policy. Go to United's Refund Page to request a refund if United has cancelled your flight and the flight you've been rebooked on is departing or arriving with a 2 hours or more difference compared to the schedule when you originally booked the flight.
Have you had a United Airlines flight cancelled recently, due to a lack of passengers?
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