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ECU economist examines flight cancellations

GREENVILLE, NC   (Oct. 17, 2006)   —   Airline routes that are served by a single carrier have higher cancellation rates than routes served by multiple carriers, an East Carolina University economist has found.

“Our findings suggest that flight cancellations are not random events,” said Nicholas Rupp, an ECU professor of economics.

Rupp and UNC-Chapel Hill colleague Mark Holmes analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation for 35 million flights from 1995 and 2001 to determine factors that relate to flight cancellations. Their findings appear in the November 2006 edition of Economica.

In addition to weather, Rupp said there are several reasons for flight cancellations, the most prominent among them airline hub size, concern over revenue loss, the day of the week, and the time of the flight.

“Airline routes served by a single carrier are more prevalent at smaller airports, hence the increase in flight cancellations is likely due to an airport effect, such as a lack of mechanics at small airports,” Rupp said.

Rupp became interested in studying the connection between lack of competition on a route and flight cancellations when his own flight from Atlanta to Valdosta, GA was repeatedly cancelled in 2000. Smaller airports tend to have fewer resources than larger airports, said Rupp, and usually have cornered the market for regional passenger use.

The researchers also found that routes with more frequent daily service are more likely to be cancelled. Carriers are trying to minimize the inconvenience imposed on travelers from flight cancellations, said Holmes, and hence they are more likely to cancel flights on routes served regularly during the day.

“Customers are going to be less upset if they have to wait one hour for a rescheduled flight than if they have to wait four hours,” said Holmes, a senior research fellow at UNC Chapel-Hill’s Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

Cancelled flights also occur because of the lack of ridership on a flight, Rupp said, which also inconveniences fewer passengers.

“This is good news for travelers since the carrier is trying to minimize the number of passengers inconvenienced by a flight cancellation,” he said. “You would rather they cancel an empty flight than a full flight.”

Researchers also found that flights scheduled on less busy travel days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday) were more likely to be cancelled, as are flights to airports where airlines have “use-it-or-lose-it” scheduled slots for arrivals and departures. They also found that passengers scheduled for the last flight of the day are less likely to have their flights cancelled.

“Carriers do this for two reasons,” Holmes said. “First, they want to get all of their aircraft to their scheduled destinations to set themselves up for normal operations the following day. And second, they don’t want to inconvenience air travelers by making them stay overnight.”

While delays at larger hub airports have been extensively reported by the media, less attention has been given to the reduction in flight cancellations for flights departing from a carrier’s hub airport. Holmes explains: “carriers have access to more resources including replacement flight crews, mechanics, spare parts and equipment at their own hub airports, hence the reduction in cancellations.”

Do the authors provide any suggestions to travelers who want to avoid flight cancellations? “Choose a departure time earlier in the day, travel on a Thursday, Friday, or Sunday, select a larger airport (preferably a carrier’s hub), and if making a connection try to avoid an airport subject to poor weather conditions (i.e., winter snow storms in Chicago or Denver; summer thunder storms in Atlanta).


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481