When she was shopping for plane tickets this summer for a November trip to Disneyland, Brittani Mills booked Southwest Airlines’ first nonstop flight of the day.
The 7:35 a.m. departure from Portland, Oregon, would get her and her cousin into Los Angeles by 10 a.m., giving them time to explore a city neither has visited before heading to their hotel near Disney. It is a surprise trip for his 13th birthday.
Southwest abruptly changed Mills’ plans in an email sent just before Labor Day.
“We want to make you aware of a change we’ve made to your upcoming trip,” it began. “This was done proactively due to a Southwest flight schedule change on your day of travel. Please review your new itinerary below. Your reservation is confirmed, and no further action is required.”
Mills, 24, glanced at the new flight and was instantly upset. She was rebooked on a 5:15 p.m. departure from Portland and would stop in Oakland before arriving in Los Angeles at 9 p.m., 11 hours later than planned.
“I was looking, and I was like, ‘That’s not OK.’ It’s getting us in (to the Disney hotel) close to midnight.”
Southwest’s email doesn’t mention it, but Mills and travelers around the country can blame the prolonged grounding of the Boeing 737 Max for the flurry of flight changes – many less than ideal – popping up in their inboxes.
Southwest, American and United have been rebooking flights since the plane was grounded March 13 following two fatal crashes in less than five months, forcing airlines to scramble to remove it from their schedules and put passengers on other flights.
Here’s why airlines keep changing those flights you booked months ago
The flight changes have arrived in waves since then as airlines have repeatedly had to take the plane out of their schedules further into the future with the plane’s return uncertain.
The latest batch began in late July, when airlines began extending Max flight cancellations past early November, the first sign the grounding will disrupt holiday travel plans:
- Southwest removed the plane from its schedule through Jan. 5.
- United followed up by taking the plane out of its schedule through Dec. 19, ahead of the peak Christmas/New Year’s travel rush.
- And over Labor Day weekend, American said it was extending Max cancellations through Dec. 3.
The volume of flight changes has increased throughout the year because Southwest, American and United all initially planned to have more of the planes in their schedules as the year progressed due to new plane deliveries from Boeing. So they’ve been selling tickets on the planes for fall and holiday flights and beyond.
Southwest, the largest U.S. operator of the Max, had 34 of the planes when the plane was grounded and expected to add another 41. As a result, its latest schedule change affected 200 daily flights, double the number from just a few months ago. The airline is still in the process of notifying passengers and has contacted those booked through mid-December, spokesman Chris Mainz said.
American planned to go from 24 Max 8s to 40. The latest schedule change affects 140 daily flights, up from 115 a few months ago. All passengers have been notified, spokesman Ross Feinstein said.
United expected to end the year with 30 Max 9s, up from just 14 when the plane was grounded. It had to cancel nearly 100 daily flights in November and December, compared with 70 in September. All affected passengers have been rebooked, spokesman Frank Benenati said.
And there could be another wave ahead. If there are no clear signs the Max ungrounding by the FAA is near, American and United will soon need to make another decision on their holiday schedules. United President Scott Kirby seemed to hedge his bets on Thursday, telling an investor conference in California he expects the Max to return toward the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
Airlines like to say the number of passengers affected by each round of Max flight changes is small because most travelers don’t buy tickets months in advance.
That’s of little consolation to travelers who booked early and suddenly find their plans upended.
Travelers affected by 737 Max flight cancellations have options
Mills bought her tickets to Los Angeles in June because she found a great deal, $355 round trip for two, on nonstop flights.
She declined the flight Southwest booked for her and the refund it offers to all affected passengers because it would cost more to buy a ticket today.
She finally took the airline up on its one-time offer – also available to all passengers affected by the Max flight shuffling – to book another flight without paying more. She settled on the next best option: a late-afternoon, nonstop flight to Los Angeles.
“It’s inconvenient because we lose a day,” she said.
Debbie Munson is still smarting from a series of emails she recently received from Southwest and fearful another is coming.
The Arizona woman and her two adult sons are flying to Connecticut to spend Thanksgiving with family. None of their outbound flights on Thanksgiving Day were affected, but her sons’ return flights changed. One of the changes was palatable, but the other took her son on a cross country tour back to Albuquerque, New Mexico, making it a significantly longer flight departing in the morning instead of evening.
Munson couldn’t cancel and rebook on another airline for the same price this late, so she called Southwest. She asked to be put on another airline and was told no.
Southwest flight canceled? Forget about being put on another airline
Munson also asked Southwest to reimburse her for some of the frequent flyer miles she used for part of the trip. Southwest again said no, she said.
She settled on a slightly better flight than Southwest had originally picked: a 6 a.m. departure, nearly 12 hours earlier than the flight she booked for him.
“He’s losing a day of vacation,” Munson said. “Not only that, but we’ve got to be at the airport in the middle of the night. It’s inconvenient. And it’s not our fault.”
Munson is leaving Connecticut in early December, later than her sons, and hasn’t received any emails about her flight. She worries that it’s coming, though.
“I’m fearful everyday I go look at my email, and I’m terrified I’m going to get another email with a change on it,” she said.
Not everyone is mad about Max flight changes
Some savvy Southwest travelers are taking advantage of free flight changes and rebooking flights on more desirable dates or times they didn’t book originally because the prices were higher. There’s an entire talk on frequent flyer forum FlyerTalk about the practice.
Other travelers appear to luck into better times. One traveler tweeted that he planned to fly the week after Thanksgiving because it was too pricey to fly over Thanksgiving. Southwest changed his flight time as a result of the Max reshuffling, making him eligible to change his flight without penalty. He switched to peak Thanksgiving flights.