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How do they decide?

It costs a lot of money to cancel a flight. This expense increases exponentially with an international flight. It’s one thing to book passengers on a different flight when there are six to ten departures a day between a hub and a busy business town.

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You can also sometimes send them through another hub to get to their final destination. But when you only operate a handful of flights a week between countries, the stakes escalate rapidly. A few international markets are almost like domestic with respect to frequency. London, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, and a few others have flights on both U.S. and foreign carriers, and most of these offer quite a few options each day.

However, when you get to lesser-traveled markets, the options for a bad day change, and a number of variables need to be considered. Many countries, especially in Europe, have much stricter rules than the U.S. about taking care of inconvenienced passengers. These rules must be complied with or there is a heavy expense imposed on the carrier. The type of aircraft typically used to serve a city also matters. It’s one thing to upsize a flight from, say, a 757 to a 777. However, when you downgrade the equipment, you don’t solve the problem so much as create new ones. If the crew that is stranded doesn’t operate the new airplane, you lose outbound seats to ferry the crew out. Alternatively, an up-gauge of equipment means more flight attendants are needed, so the difference will need to be ferried in, then given an opportunity to rest before working the flight back.

Many airports that U.S. carriers operate to overseas only have gates for airplanes of a certain size range. Sending a smaller airplane may not be an option.

The cause for the cancellation matters as well. If it was a mechanical issue, spare parts need to be brought in, and possibly company mechanics, depending on the complexity of the repair. This can take some time, depending on language barriers in communicating with the local station. A sick crewmember may need to be sent to a local hospital, necessitating a replacement. The simplest type of cancel is probably a weather related one. While relatively rare on long-haul flights, it can happen, especially with a big event like a hurricane or unexpected tornado damage.

When stuck trying to choose between several flights to cancel, overall costs usually play a big role. The amount of revenue lost from ticket sales and cargo are weighed against the costs of recovery or operating another segment with the available equipment. Airlines have sophisticated computer models to help figure out the path of least resistance to normalizing operations while minimizing overall costs. With international markets, one factor in the decision is making sure that passengers will not be given a reason to avoid flying a particular carrier in the future. It’s a balancing act.

Crews tend to be okay with an extra night or even two in a foreign city, as they get to put on their tourist hat and explore. But, like all of you, we have home lives, families, and other responsibilities that we want and need to get back to, and losing days off is not always something that works out in your best interest. But, if it does happen, be prepared to take advantage of it!

Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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