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 )