When Should Airlines Cancel Flights?

How many times have I been at the airport waiting for a delayed plane? I’ve lost count. Dozens of times, and I’m not all that frequent a flier. Sometimes I’ve waited almost an entire day. How many times have the airlines told me the flight is delayed before I left my house? Exactly once in over thirty years of flying, and that was almost twenty years ago. Something needs to be done.

I know that the airline can’t always predict inclement weather, but sometimes they can. Sometimes the airline doesn’t know they’re going to have a mechanical problem that grounds a plane. However sometimes the plane you’re supposed to be on in 60 minutes is sitting on the ground on the other side of the country while mechanics work on it. Sometimes they’re having labor problems, and they know they aren’t going to be able to run all the planes.

Why can’t airlines tell you this honestly so you don’t waste hours in the airport? No reason? Why don’t they? It’s an externality. The cost of waiting is borne by you, but the cost of telling you is borne by the airline. I’m not sure, but I suspect the real cost that matters here is uncertainty. There is usually a small chance that the airline will get some passengers onto their planes and get them off the ground. The airline does not know which flights will be able to leave so they just tell everyone to show up. Better to get 1% of the passengers out, even at the cost of severely inconveniencing the other 99%, than to tell 100% that they should spend an extra couple of hours comfortably at home before leaving.

I suspect the airlines could do better. They could and should make decisions about canceling some flights earlier in order to save flight crews and planes for other flights. However the airlines are likely acting in their best interests. Like agile programmers, they are leaving their decisions to the last possible minute to try to maximize their revenue and their convenience. To keep their options open they need to have all the passengers in the airport so they can pick and choose the flights they want to run as late as they want to choose them. They are shifting a significant burden onto passengers.

We need to change the ground rules such that more of the cost of making passengers wait at the airport shifts to the airlines. That way they’ll have an incentive to make more reasonable and less optimistic guesses about when flights leave, and to notify passengers earlier. I’m not sure what these incentives should be, but here are a few ideas.

The first is cash. The airlines should pay each passenger the minimum wage per hour they spend in the airport past one, after the scheduled departure time. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough for them to notice. However, there’d be an exception. The airline doesn’t have to pay if they officially delayed the flight time two hours or more before the flight, or three hours for an international flight. (The same amount of time we’re recommended to allot for reaching the airport from out homes.) The goal here is not actually to make the airlines pay. It’s just to have them make more reasonable estimates.

My second suggestion is that if a flight is delayed more than two hours after a passenger has checked in, the passenger should be able to cancel their ticket and receive a full refund. I doubt many passengers would choose this, but some would avail themselves of this option. This would relieve overcrowded airports and flights, and let those who stay have a better chance of getting on an earlier flight. The chance of passengers canceling on them would also push airlines to make more realistic flight schedules that don’t fall apart every time a plane goes into the shop.

A third possibility is to simply remove the delay decision from the hands of the airlines. Appoint an independent third party not answerable to the airlines who has the power and authority to declare a flight delayed. I’m not sure such an arbiter would have the information they needed to make that decision though, so I tend to favor a solution that lets the airline decide, but assigns the cost to the airline if they decide wrongly.

Any other ideas?

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