As Airlines Become More Efficient, Cheap Seats Become Harder To Find

Scott McCartney, who writes the WSJ’s Middle Seat column, says that airlines are starting to use these newfangled things called “computers” to work out all their scheduling demons — and while it’s good for business, travelers should expect fewer “off peak” cheap seats.

The reason: Airlines fly the same schedule most days regardless of passenger demand. Just about as many flights take off Tuesday as fly on Friday, regardless of how many people want to fly that day.

Now that’s changing, potentially removing some of the best bargains from the skies just when economically strained passengers need cheap seats most. More advanced scheduling systems are letting airlines tailor departures to better match demand and introduce flexibility into their traditionally rigid schedules.

“This is a game-changer,” said Bill Owen, lead scheduler at Southwest Airlines. “It lets us be amazingly nimble.”

Rats. Cheap seats will still be there, of course, but they’ll be harder to find. It’ll take more than just searching for flights on a Tuesday.

Southwest Airlines is already saving money:

It took several years, but the company built the idea into a home-grown schedule “optimizer,” and used it on real schedules for the first time in 2004. The computer took six airplanes out of Southwest’s schedule without cutting any flights, a saving of $180 million in aircraft purchases. The schedule was run through the system again in 2006, and earlier this year, a more advanced system was put into regular use. “We’ve been able to decrease almost every devil that plagued us,” said John Jamotta, senior director of schedule planning at Southwest.

The upside for travelers is that the airline is more efficient and able to offer more flights when their customers want them. Something they hope you’ll appreciate more than a cheap weekday ticket.

Savvier Airline Schedules, Fewer Cheap Fares [WSJ]
(Photo: Zonaphoto )

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  1. blackmage439 says:

    I’m not sure how cheap seats could be a thing of the past because of this optimization. Airlines will become more efficient, and reduce their two biggest expenditures: planes and fuel. At the least, the more successful airlines will be able to afford more accommodations (snacks, meals?!, more legroom), and be able to replace aging, less-safe airplanes more rapidly. God forbid these airlines might even pay their employees more, or *gasp!* not work pilots half to death.

    • GearheadGeek says:

      @blackmage439: The cheap seats that will be eliminated by this sort of optimization are seats that were available because the airline was running more flights than actually needed for demand on some days. If they can tailor their schedule (and their choice of aircraft in some cases) to more closely match the demand, then there won’t be so many seats that would stay empty if the airline doesn’t offer them at deep discounts. If the number of seats available on a route is very close to the number of people who actually NEED to fly the route, average prices will be higher.

      • sonneillon says:

        @GearheadGeek: But the airlines will be able to compete more effectively with each other and prices will go down on average. The deep discounts won’t be there for the savvy but the average price per seat will be decreased.

    • flyingphotog says:

      @blackmage439:

      I work for an airline. The 2 biggest expendatures for an airline are salary/insurance benefits, followed by fuel.

      • RedwoodFlyer says:

        @flyingphotog:

        Hey, what airline are you with? You should be able to guess the one I’m at by my name lol…

        Just to back you up, the lease/payments for the actual airplane are certainly a much smaller, though still significant, portion of expenses.

        Fun fact: If Southwest added just 5 minutes to each turn, they would have to buy around 38 new airframes.

  2. R3PUBLIC0N says:

    Good news about the airline industry? Does anyone else smell burnt toastsdddffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff

    Ah, nothing like stroke humor in the morning.

  3. NotATool says:

    Once again, Southwest on top of its game. Schedule optimization, fuel hedging, what will they think of next?

    • econobiker says:

      @NotATool: Southwest was an early adopter of the “on-line check in” deal which awards customers with a priority spot in the A,B,C cattle line and awards Southwest by having the customer pay for their own flight ticket printout paper/toner.

      Even the printed by Southwest tickets went from having the A,B,C fully colored in to just outlines to save that pricey toner (sometime after they discontinued the numbered plastic placards for boarding priority).

      • RedwoodFlyer says:

        @econobiker:

        Errr…Bravo Sierra…they use thermal paper – i.e. no toner. They could color the whole thing black and it would cost the same.

        • econobiker says:

          @RedwoodFlyer: Ok point taken on thermal printing- maybe it was for reducing the energy printing the boarding pass. They still get it free from when their customers print out though.

          I always wondered what they did with the old numbered plastic boarding tickets… Maybe they are shingling a 3rd world shanty roof somewhere…

    • balthisar says:

      @NotATool: If it’s pre-assigned seats, then cool! I’ll consider Southwest again!

      • endersshadow says:

        @balthisar: Can you explain the aversion to Southwest’s seating? I’m a huge fan of it–I’m a big and tall guy and a big fan of leg room, so I always make sure to check in early to get a good spot in line (or just by Business Select) so I can get an exit row seat. As a regular traveler (2 flights a week, woohoo!) with an irregular schedule (sometimes it’s Monday, sometimes Tuesday), this system only requires 24 hours advance notice to get a great seat, while pre-assigned seats often need up to a year to get an exit row. Do you also avoid buses, movies, and/or church due to their open seating, as well, or is it just planes? I’m honestly curious to know.

        • RedwoodFlyer says:

          @endersshadow:

          No kidding! With 2 flights/week, you should soon be on the A-List for automatic A boarding passes regardless of time of check in…without having to buy a biz. select fair.

        • balthisar says:

          @endersshadow: I avoid busses except in Mexico, where they have assigned seats. I don’t go to movies, because there’s no assigned aisle seats, unless the movie’s already been out for months. And in Church, I’m one of the people that won’t scoot in and instead make late comers get in the middle.

          I also don’t appreciate being told to check in at certain times in order to play stupid games to get ahead of the next guy, or otherwise arrive several hours early. I fly often enough that I know how long it takes to get where I’m going, and so it’s much better to have assigned seats rather than risk getting stuck in a middle seat. I’m tall and request bulkheads or emergency seats, and often get them. When I can’t, I use my Knee Defender.

          Funny you mention busses — I avoid Southwest because it’s precisely like riding a bus!

      • RedwoodFlyer says:

        @balthisar:

        They did a huge revamp of their system..it’s no longer the clustereff of a cattlecall it once was..it’s very well organized and executed.

  4. CRNewsom says:

    The FAA has regulations in place to ensure that pilots do not work more than a specified numeber of hours per month. So, I don’t see pilots as being overworked, underpaid (for entry level), yes, overworked, no.

    • Winstonian says:

      @CRNewsom: Yup, the FAA has rules saying that a flight crew member can’t work more than 16 hours without being given at least 8 hours of “crew rest” before being scheduled to work another shift. Those 8 hours start as soon as the plane is parked at the gate, since they are no longer getting paid for “flying” at that point.

      Here’s what happens during those 8 hours:
      – Check the plane in with the dispatchers. Log any maintenance items in the aircraft logs. Try and find someone that knows when the next shuttle to the hotel is. Find out that it left 5 minutes ago, and runs once an hour. (twice if you’re really lucky)
      – Catch the next shuttle – 45 minute ride to the hotel (the ones near the airport are expensive). 10-15 minutes to check in. Find out that the hotel restaurant closed an hour ago. Walk next door to Denny’s for dinner, or make some ramen (unless the TSA confiscated it at your morning security check-in). Drop into bed 2 hours after getting off the plane – 6 hours till tomorrow’s departure.
      – Wake up in time to shower, dress, catch the 45 minute ride to the airport. Spend 45 minutes in line in security. Watch the ramp rats badging through an unmarked door to get the fuel trucks that are going to fill your plane. After going through the scanners (and having your FAA-required flashlight taken away by TSA idiots), head to the dispatch office to collect paperwork, check weather, notices to airmen (think – airspace restrictions, closed runways, and towers and cranes that might poke up where you want to fly). Bum a flashlight off a co-worker, or go “borrow” one from maintenance.
      – Walk around the plane, and make sure that it’s ready to go. Double-check that the outsourced maintenance people actually reattached all the gizmos and doodads. Make sure that other TSA idiots haven’t broken off critical sensors “inspecting” the plane. If you spend less than 20 minutes on this, you haven’t done a good job. Double-check fuel loads, weight and balance calculations that the dispatcher did, and that the loaded fuel is enough to get you to your destination given that the dispatcher didn’t notice that the headwinds have doubled since they made the initial calculations.
      – Push back for an “on-time” departure, so that after being on-site for an hour and half, you are finally starting to get paid again. The clock stops when you get to the next gate, so a nice ground hold would help you earn some extra cash and afford you a couple minutes of precious sleep.

      At a conservative estimate, your flight crew averages 4-5 hours of sleep a night for five or six nights in a row. Then they get a glorious 24 hour rest period, and start it over. The ones that are earning $18,500/yr flying small regional jets are also probably ferrying aircraft at night from where they ended up one day to where they are needed the next, which, since they are not carrying passengers, operate under different rules.

      Time off is all relative when it’s being reported by the company that is trying to cut costs by boosting executive salaries…

  5. squatchie44 says:

    So Southwest has been doing this in some magnitude since 2004, but just now no more cheap seats? That doesnt make any sense, i dont see much of a change coming at all.

  6. a_pink_poodle says:

    I’d appreciate it more if I didn’t have to literally pull my knee’s up to my chin to fit into an economy seat.

  7. Justinh6 says:

    Nonsense, cheap airfare can still be had..

    I’m still paying roughly the same price that I did several years ago for a flight anywhere in the United States.

    Using ITA software, and the Southwest Airlines page usually helps you figure the cheapest airfare..

    • youbastid says:

      @Justinh6: “Cheap seats will still be there, of course, but they’ll be harder to find.”

      Did you miss that part? Several years ago you didn’t need ITA software and hours spent on the Southwest page trying to find the cheapest flight combos. You just had to go to orbitz and could get a round trip cross country flight for $250.

  8. DeltaTee says:

    Businesses tend to stay in business by making money. An airline which is selling off a bunch of cheap seats is likely not making money. Selling cheap, last minutes fares that make a profit over the marginal cost is good–but only if the larger fares have already covered the fixed costs of the flight.

    Running a flight that won’t cover the fixed costs of doing business is no good for anyone except the customers that are happy they got a great deal (while driving the company into bankruptcy).

    As an aside, the fewest people I ever had on a flight was 13 on a 737. Southwest wasn’t making money on the flight, but in the second half of September 2001, it was important to get people flying again. After unloading goody trunk on those flying (I still have two packs of Southwest Airlines playing cards) and chatting with the pilot who was sitting in the first row of the cabin, we took off. As we flew over NYC, the pilot made an announcement that if everyone moved to the left side of the plane (we could all get a window seat) we could see the search lights down below. All told, it was a very surreal experience.

    • bilge says:

      @DeltaTee: If a plane or crew needs to be moved into position, then the flight’s a necessity regardless of load.

      • DeltaTee says:

        @bilge: Then the fixed costs have already been “paid for” and almost any fare adds to the marginal profit of the airline. As efficiencies are worked out, there are fewer ‘move the plane around” flights.

  9. czarandy says:

    This is terrific. I was always dismayed that real applications of many optimization techniques are years behind the theory, for no apparent reason.

    And if flights get cheaper then *all* tickets will get cheaper, although perhaps the variance will decrease.

  10. Daveinva says:

    You know what I miss?

    Flights that aren’t full, or more likely, overbooked.

    I fly at odd times to save money. I fly Southwest a lot. And in recent years, I *never* come across these mythical “empty flights” anymore.

    Ten years ago, even as recently as five years ago, I’d get lucky every once in a while and have a row to myself, or at least nobody would have to sit in the dreaded coach bitch seat in the middle.

    I haven’t had that simple pleasure in *years*.

    Hey, here’s a plan for airline success, the same plan every customer since time immemorial has wanted: cheap seats are good, but we will pay a (modest) premium for legroom, buttroom, and *guaranteed departure times*. Since I rarely have to fly for business anymore, I rarely fly at all, because flying is now an awful way to travel. Delays like never before, cramped like never before, just plain (plane?) awful.

    • kepler11 says:

      @Daveinva: Hey, here’s a plan for airline success, the same plan every customer since time immemorial has wanted: cheap seats are good, but we will pay a (modest) premium for legroom, buttroom, and *guaranteed departure times*.

      well, unfortunately, you have demonstrated that you will say you will, but really will not pay any premium for legroom or buttroom. That has been shown by the market — an airline which offers more legroom but even a $2 higher fare will lose to those that cram them in like sardines, because customers don’t care about legroom — at least not enough to pay a dollar more. They gripe about it, but aren’t willing to put their money where their collective mouths are.

      The same for in flight meals, piano lounges on the upper deck, and chateubriand for two as part of the standard economy ticket. When it comes down to it, they’d rather keep the dollar.

      And regardless of whether you (in particular) are actually willing, your fellow travelers outvoted you, and that’s how you have to fly unless you buy first class.

    • darkrose says:

      @Daveinva: I fly at odd times to save money. I fly Southwest a lot. And in recent years, I *never* come across these mythical “empty flights” anymore.

      Flew back from Philly on USAirways on Superbowl Sunday last year. Missed the first quarter of the game, but there were 35 passengers on the plane (an airbus 320 IIRC). We all had rows to ourselves if we wanted, and because the flight was so light and everybody booked seats towards the front, they paid us with 2 free (alcoholic) drinks for some of us to move to the back.

      I seriously was scared they were going to just cancel the flight but apparently they needed the plane in Jacksonville for the morning anyway..so we had probably the most pleasurable flight experience I’ve ever had.

      Anyway, I’ll be driving up to Philly (880 miles door-to-door) due to Thanksgiving fares. I can drive there and back twice and eat at steakhouses for the price even Southwest wants for 1 ticket…

      • t325 says:

        @darkrose: I had a flight from Reagan in DC to St. Louis on American once that was like that. It was an MD-80 deathtrap, but there were maybe 25 or 30 of us on the flight. Although they didn’t bribe us with free drinks to move. But we still got to sit wherever (well, in coach, couldn’t move to first class) and all had rows to ourselves. It was nice, but gone are those days unfortunately.

  11. kepler11 says:

    from Consumerist’s post on the article: “…The upside for travelers is that the airline is more efficient and able to offer more flights when their customers want them. Something they hope you’ll appreciate more than a cheap weekday ticket…

    I doubt the airline hopes you “appreciate” the departures when you want them. What they hope is that they can stop flying the cheap flights when no one really wants to fly (and they have to cut prices to fill the plane), and move those planes to where customers are willing to pay a premium for them, like rush hour, or the Monday morning, or Thursday evening consultant express.

    If by “appreciate”, you mean willing to pay the bucks for, then maybe, yes.

    • Employees Must Wash Hands says:

      @kepler11:

      If it means the Thursday evening consultant express is more convenient and gets me home sooner 48 weeks out of the year, then I’m cool with paying a bit more on the three or four weeks a year I use my own money to fly.

  12. chrisjames says:

    The title is just a little confusing. It should read “Seats Become Harder To Find.”

    I don’t see why they need to lower their fares now that they’ve upped efficiency. The money saved would be better spent on improving the planes, the service, boarding and deboarding, and flight attendant training. I like that we’re getting more value for our buck, but I prefer comfort to cattle-car and I will pay for it.

    • Pan_theFrog says:

      @chrisjames:
      If there are 2 full planes leaving your local airport going to your destination each day, when there used to be 4 half-filled… then your choice is to pay what they ask, or drive.

      If they take a seat out of each row, and then the others in that row have to pay for the ‘missing’ seat and help pay for the other plane that is filled with the folks in the missing seat. So if there are currently 5 seats in a row, and they currently go for $180 each, and they remove one, then the 4 people left have to pay an extra $50-60 each. This extra cost leads to fewer people flying, which leads to fewer planes/seats, which leads to higher prices.

  13. 310Drew says:

    Fly Air Tran. The seats are cheap, and the $49 at the gate business class upgrade cant be beat !

    Just make sure you book 10 days in advance.

    • RedwoodFlyer says:

      @310Drew:

      Plus $69 walkup fares for anyone under 24..can’t forget that…though WN gives you a free r/t after 3 paid r/ts if you’re 18-23