The Airline’s Dilemma: To Cancel or Not to Cancel?

Industry Transformations3 minutes readNov 6th, 2017

By Suzanne Moreland, Travel and Transportation Solution Manager, Unisys

To be or not to be … canceled? That is often the question for airlines today. It is not a dilemma easily solved.

On the one hand, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) can fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger if a domestic flight is delayed three hours or more, or if an international flight is delayed four hours or more. Nor is the U.S. the only nation to penalize flight delays: the European Union, China, India, and others also impose fines or require compensation. The costs can quickly mount.

On the other hand, airlines don’t want to be too quick to cancel flights if they have any choice in the matter. Cancellation creates a domino effect as passengers have to be reaccommodated onto other flights. While this may be nothing more than an annoyance for a single flight cancellation, it can create chaos in situations that impact multiple flights, such as a major snowstorm or terrorist threat. And if an airline’s hub goes down, the effect of flight cancellation can be catastrophic.

Suppose, for example, that ABC Airlines’ Philadelphia hub is hit by a line of thunderstorms. Planes are grounded for as long as the storms persist. Should ABC Airlines put these flights on “delayed” status, or cancel them? There is no guarantee of how long the storms will last, or how severe they will be. A delay may or may not reap a fine, but cancelling flights will have ramifications up and down the line. Because Philadelphia is a hub, it is not only the flights that are currently grounded that would have to be reaccommodated: all the passengers on all the flights from dozens of other cities who are scheduled to arrive in Philadelphia to make connections would also have to be reaccommodated – without passing through this major hub.

It is understandable, then, that many airlines risk the cost of fines and compensation by allowing flights to be delayed rather than choosing to cancel them.

But, what if airlines had a crystal ball – in modern parlance, a dashboard – that could show exactly how passengers could be reaccommodated in the event of a cancellation? And then, what if the same system could perform the approved reaccommodation automatically? Imagine how delay and cancellation scenarios would be affected by a solution that could:

  • Handle multiple flight cancellations/delays simultaneously
  • Reroute passengers transiting or connecting at a closed airport, including a hub
  • Predict results based on parameterized rules
  • Allow the airline to change the rules and view predicted results as often as needed until results are satisfactory
  • Select the airline’s most valuable passengers and handles them as a priority

The decision of whether or not to cancel flights would still have to be made, but such a solution would change the nature of that decision by bringing new information and new capabilities into play. Airline operations center personnel could review various reaccommodation scenarios to assess impact before making the decision of whether or not to cancel flights. Once approved, reaccommodation could take place immediately and simultaneously for all passengers. This efficiency would be a breath of fresh air for travelers whose journey has been interrupted.

Delays and cancellations will always be a fact of life for airlines. But airlines can work through the dilemma: with the right information readily at hand, airlines can make the best choice every time.

For more information on passenger reaccommodation solutions, email

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