Airlines slash fall flights. Here’s what it means if you have tickets or need to book a trip

Liz White has plane tickets to Phoenix in early October for a cousin’s wedding in Sedona, Arizona.

The California geologist booked the last Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento on the Friday of wedding weekend because she has a licensing exam she can’t reschedule.

Last week, Southwest sent her an email notifying her that her flight had been canceled and she was moved to a flight three hours earlier. She asked about flying to Las Vegas instead and driving from there, but there wasn’t a late enough flight.

White ended up rebooking the next best option: a flight to Phoenix early Saturday.

“It’s not ideal, and I’ll likely be late for the ceremony, but it was the best we could do,” she said, adding that no other airline offered a late enough flight.

Good to know: Here’s why Southwest won’t put you on another airline if your flight is canceled

White’s situation should be a cautionary tale for anyone with airline reservations this fall or plans to buy a ticket.

Airlines have spent the past few weeks scrubbing fall flights after a pickup in travel demand this summer slowed during a spike in COVID-19 cases in several areas around the country.

The numbers are staggering. United Airlines has about 2,000 daily flights on the books for September, half the number it planned a month ago, according to travel data and analytics firm OAG.

American Airlines planned an average of nearly 5,400 daily September flights as of late July and is down to fewer than 2,900, OAG data shows..

Southwest Airlines has cut 25% of its September flights, or nearly 700 daily trips, according to OAG, and the company said more dramatic cuts occurred for October, when daily flights will be down to 2,000 from a planned 3,500.

The upshot for travelers: possible flight changes if they have tickets and fewer choices (and possibly higher fares) if they don’t. 

5 things to do if you’re flying this fall, including Labor Day weekend

1. Check your reservation. All you need is your confirmation number. Make sure the times and even flight dates or airport haven’t changed. You can do it online or by calling the airline or online travel agency. If your flight has changed, review the flights you’re booked on and call or go online to try to find better options if those don’t work. 

2. Pay attention to emails from your airline(s). Sure, it might be another pitch for a fare sale or a frequent flyer credit card, but it could also be notification of an important flight change or cancellation.

3. Don’t wait until the day before or week of your trip to reconfirm. Your rebooking options will be even more limited if your flight has been changed or canceled. Worse, you could miss the new flight the airline put you on or be stuck at the airport for hours if it’s later. 

4. In the worst-case scenario, be prepared to shell out more money to buy a ticket on another airline if your travel dates or times aren’t flexible. Airlines are required to refund your money if they cancel a flight or change it significantly, but that might not cover the price of a ticket on another airline, especially last minute. My sister, a teacher, had to shell out an extra $600 for her family to get home on Labor Day because Southwest canceled their (very cheap) flight and couldn’t get them home until Tuesday. In dire cases, you can ask the airline to put you on another airline, but Southwest doesn’t do that, and other major airlines prefer not to if other options on the airline are available.

5. Build some flexibility into your travel plans if you’re buying tickets. If you have to be at your destination or home by a certain date for work or school, don’t cut it close with your flights in case there are changes or cancellations. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest, American, United slash fall flights: What it means

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